Thursday, April 1, 2010

Net Censorship Not An April Fools Joke

Look at the date. It’s April fools day. Perhaps that explains the latest barrage from the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. In an interview with Fairfax Media he has once again mounted a vigorous defence of his plan to censor the internet. It is Senator Conroy’s plan to introduce compulsory filters at the service provider level to block websites on a so called blacklist. The list would be compiled in secret and kept in secret, but it would be supposed to consist of websites known to include child pornography, bestiality, pro-rape content, and extreme violence. Such websites would be categorized as “refused classification” and it would be illegal for them to be accessible in Australia.

While it might be perfectly reasonable to hold genuine concerns about the availability of extreme material on the internet, especially for young users, there are significant problems with the plan. First of all it won’t work. It is an attempt to apply the same censorship system that is used for books, magazines, film and TV to the very different environment of the internet. But those are all published media, where as the internet is not. The point is often made by service providers that they are more like the post office or a phone company and cannot be held responsible for the material which is circulated. In truth, the internet is not exactly like the post office either, but is a kind of hybrid combination of a communications medium and a publishing platform.

While a book or a movie might be classified by the censorship authorities, the process is done openly and everybody knows the book has been censored. It is a process which is open to dispute and appeal. On the other hand, Senator Conroy’s plan calls for the censorship process to be secret, with no recourse for anyone to appeal the decisions. If the government decides that a website should be blocked, that’s all there is to it. Everybody else, including the owner of the website is kept in the dark. The problem is that the government could conceivably decide to ban anything they choose and we would be none the wiser.

The accuracy of filtering has also been called into question, and although Senator Conroy insists that his filters are “100% accurate – no overblocking, no underblocking, and no impact on speeds”, we know that just isn’t true. There has already been a trial run of this form of filtering and it has been well publicized that among the websites blocked were sites for a dentist and a school tuckshop. Sites relating to sexual health information and historical war material also get intercepted. Technical experts have advised that filtering will in fact impact on speeds, regardless of anything Senator Conroy might claim. And on top of that, the experts are clear that filtering will not stop extreme content from appearing on the web, and that anyone who really wants to bypass the filtering can do so quickly and easily.

But perhaps the most sinister aspect of what Senator Conroy is proposing is the secrecy. The framework that will be put into place, if Senator Conroy succeeds, will make it possible for any future government to intercept and censor anything it wants on the internet, including political criticism. And all in secret, without us even knowing we have been censored. That’s the sort of thing you might expect in China or Iran, but not in a free and democratic country like Australia. That may not be the Senator’s intention, but that is the likely outcome of pursuing this path.

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