Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Defending Our Rights By Destroying Them

The United States Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich was asked about the Australian Government plans for internet censorship when he appeared on ABC Television last night. While it is not normally the role of a foreign Ambassador to comment upon matters of domestic policy, the question was relevant because the internet is an essential platform for international trade and communication, and the United States State Department has previously expressed its concern over any attempt to impose censorship, including the plan by the Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. The Ambassador responded to the question by saying that the internet must be free, meaning freely accessible, and that the United States has been able to capture and prosecute child pornographers without having to use internet filters. He said, “We have other means, and we are willing to share our efforts… it’s an ongoing conversation.”

Senator Conroy on the other hand continues to defend his plan, insisting that “Having no regulation to combat illegal activity actually weakens all that is good about the internet. This is a modest measure, which reflects long-held community standards about the type of content that is unacceptable in a civilised society." He argues that filtering the internet can successfully weed out child pornography and other undesirable material, despite a wide range of concerns expressed by critics, including the impact on the speed of internet services, the likelihood that not all undesirable material will be blocked, and the possibility that innocent material will be inadvertently caught in the censorship net.

When Senator Conroy suggests that the alternative to his plan is to have no regulation, he is either missing the point or deliberately misleading us. Nobody is suggesting that it should be legal to use the internet to disseminate child pornography, in fact quite the opposite. But to try to shut it off by filtering the internet is a bit like trying to stop people sending undesirable material through the Post Office by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on opening every letter to make sure it’s compliant. It’s not very practical, it’s not very efficient, and it would just motivate the perpetrators to use other means of distribution. All of these are legitimate concerns, but none of them identify the real problem with Senator Conroy’s proposal.

The truly insidious thing about the proposal by Senator Conroy is the legal structure that would be created which would give the Minister, or his minions, the unchallenged power to determine what is and is not acceptable, to create a secret blacklist without any accountability, without any requirement for those affected to be informed, and without any recourse or appeal for those affected to challenge decisions made in secret. It represents a lack of procedural fairness and natural justice that would not be tolerated in any other context. But because Senator Conroy throws around the words “child pornography” we are expected to take him at his word that he and all of his future successors can be trusted to do our thinking for us. Once the framework exists it is only a very short step to censoring artistic expression, political ideas, and free thought of any kind which might be determined to be “unacceptable” by the self appointed guardians of moral standards. Even if we trust this government not to abuse the power it seeks to give itself, can we trust future politicians to do the same?

This is another classic example of seeking to defend our rights by destroying them.

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