Many in Australia, and those overseas interested in censorship would have now read a post from the Australian Minister for Censorship Stephen Conroy responding to concern over the implementation of the Great Firewall of Australia.
I won’t rehash what’s already been reported, but having read it several times since publication, it’s what’s left out that makes the proposal even more scary.
The Minister has stated that political speech will not be filtered under the proposal, but fails to define acceptable free speech and does nothing more to articulate his previous comments that “unwanted” material will be filtered under the scheme.
The problem here is the extraordinary mish-mash of Australian laws relating to open speech. In Victoria for example inciting religious hatred is an offense, so theoretically arguing against a particular religion would constitute hate speech instead of fair political speech.
Australia has a long track record of banning books, but for all the hatred are we now not better today having access to something like Mein Kampf so we can understand how wrong it is. There is a blurred line between political and hate speech, and blocking such speech on the internet will not stop people accessing it.
Conroy is disingenuous in suggesting that the Government is pro-free speech, yet pro-censorship: the price of free speech is that we must put up with the stuff we don’t like. The alternative system is not free speech, it’s totalitarianism.
Australia still has the bizarre situation of refusing to categorize video games for adults. The Minister says nothing of such games online, so we can still only presume that adult games online that would be refused categorization in Australia will be blocked under the filter.
Such games include online virtual world Second Life among many.
It should be remembered that Australia is a country that refused classification to Duke Nukem 3D, let alone far more seriously violent games.
Whether you like pornography or not, the hypocrisy of the Governments proposal remains the same. Senator Conroy continues to point to existing guidelines being extended to International content, but ignores the absurdity in the current guidelines.
R rated pornography is legal in Australia and can be purchased at newsagents or service stations. Under the guidelines proposed, R rated pornography online would be illegal unless those pages included a thorough adult verification scheme. That doesn’t mean enter your date here to proceed: as has previously been the case for age requirements for mobile content and R rated content hosted in Australia (of which there is little to none) that would include handing over credit card details, or in some cases being forced to register with the provider first, including the provision of adequate identifying measures to prove ones age.
The net affect is that 99.99% of R rated pornography, or any R rated material under this proposal will be blocked by the filter, as overseas providers will not bend over backwards to cater for a small market like Australia. Secondly: Australian’s will be none to keen to hand over details to these sites should they meet the criteria.
X Rated pornography is treated more strictly in Australia currently, but is quite legal, and available for purchase from the ACT and Northern Territory. X rated material under this proposal will be completely banned: so while it is legal to possess, look at or own in print or video, it will now be completely blocked online. Again: whether you agree with porn or not, the hypocrisy is rich. In terms of freedom of speech it also raises other issues: who is the Government to play moral guardian online over a picture of two consenting adults having sex? Presuming they are doing nothing illegal, why in the 21st century does the Government seek to prevent others seeing it? Government finally got out of the bedroom in the 80s when homosexuality became legal, some would argue that X Rated porn is no different again.
Secret Blacklist/ Due Process
The Minister points out that the blacklist to be maintained by ACMA will remain a secret, and cites legislation supporting this. His reasoning, as it seems to be for everything, is that it’s all about kiddie porn
Publishing the title or internet address of child abuse material would constitute distribution of illegal material and is therefore protected from release. To do otherwise would allow a person to view and download the material in jurisdictions where ISP-level filtering was not implemented.
That may well be the case, but the Minister fails to address concerns about due process should a site be added to the list. If there is no access to the list, there is no way to appeal a site being blocked incorrectly. Imagine a commenter leaving a lurid comment or pic on this blog, or a forum, and the site being added to the list based on this one instance. No transparency can only equal unfair and arbitrary justice that remains the hallmark of totalitarian Government.
The Minister refers to the National Classification Scheme, a system where by content providers must seek classification of content prior to publication. He then refers to content complaints being made to ACMA, and ACMA making the call on classification. One again the Minister fails to address properly the selection criteria under the scheme: will website owners need to seek classification on content prior to publication? If so, this would be an onerous burden on new media owners and businesses in Australia, costing time, money and putting those businesses at a strict competitive disadvantage compared to overseas operators.
If ACMA will decide on content classification, will they only act on complaints as is currently the process (again the Minister swaps and changes between the current and proposed system). If so, how exactly will the filter know what is acceptable and not acceptable content given the millions of porn sites alone that may fall under the censorship regime.
Likewise, will the filter then decide to block content based on keywords? Could we not see the case, as has happened before that a site about breast cancer is blocked because the filter considers breasts to be pornographic?
The Minister notes that in the last round of tests, overblocking, that is filters blocking legal content came in at 3-6%. He only notes that this is an advance on previous tests, but fails to address the very serious implications.
Under the scheme, three to six percent of perfectly legal content gets blocked. Anything other than a 0% rate is unacceptable.
Imagine the Australian Government waking up one morning and deciding that 6% of Australian businesses could no longer open their doors to their customers, and the outcry this would cause. This is EXACTLY what this proposal will do to online businesses, and companies with a primarily Australian focus online could find themselves out of business for no other reason that the Government’s filter has decided to block them, even though they were doing no wrong.
The Minister now states that P2P filtering technology is in the mix, despite its relative infancy. The question then becomes one of “unwanted.” Will the Government now extend the censorship regime to content presumed to be in breach of copyright as well? We can bet with absolute certainty that the Record and Movie Industries already have a letter on the Ministers desk.
Like general filtering, the question then becomes one of identification and process. How does the Government identify “unwanted material” and given that the blacklist or decision process is secret, what happens when content is incorrectly tagged. As we know the music and record industries don’t have a great track record of respecting existing copyright laws when it comes to accusations (for example, the defense of Fair Use, or Fair Trading in Australia).
Further will P2P network speeds be adversely affected for legal traffic?
The Minister notes falsely once again that in other countries running ISP filtering using blacklists that there was no discernable decrease in speed, despite noting the tests here proving otherwise.
What the Minister continues to fail to mention is that the countries running blacklists he mentions were running child porn blacklists in some cases on non-compulsory feeds. What the Minister is proposing is far more reaching than anything any of these countries are running, and every time he quotes those figures it’s a lie of context.
While it’s a positive that the Minister has finally spoken on some of the points raised by the Great Firewall of Australia proposal, it’s what he doesn’t answer that makes the proposal even more scary.
The implementation of this scheme can and will take Australia into an elite club of totalitarian societies that value state control over free speech. The Rudd Government seems hell bent on implementing a scheme with no recourse, that may kill legitimate businesses, and slow internet speeds so that Australia can truly take its place as an online backwater in the digital age.
Today I am ashamed to be Australian, ashamed that my Government should seek to implement draconian 19th century style censorship laws over the marvel of the modern age: The Internet. Free Speech may not be totally dead in Australia yet, but it’s about to be placed on life support. Conroy can say all he wants that this isn’t about free speech, but speech censored by Government isn’t free, no matter which way you want to spin it.