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Censorship and the health of the nation.

29 March 2009

Others have said it far better than I, but I've got to have a go.

In October of 2008, I emailed senator Conroy, senator Minchin, the Greens and the Democrats, expressing my concerns about the proposal to interfere with Australians' Internet access. For senator Conroy, I followed up by snail-mail. Senator Minchin responded immediately. More than two months later, senator Conroy's form letter arrived.

There may be a substantial argument in favour of Internet filtering, though I haven't heard one. The populist rationalisation is that filtering will protect children. I believe it will have the opposite effect.

A child's best protection is a diligent parent. No filter is perfect. The presence of an unreliable filter will tend to lull parents into a false sense of security, leading to a reduction in that essential diligence. A reduction in parental diligence will increase the number potential targets for predators who groom children online for abuse in the real world.

Filtering will not prevent child abuse. Traditional policing that catches abusers, and those who support abusers by purchasing child pornography, stands a better chance of making a positive difference. Resources dedicated to futile attempts at filtering the Internet will not be used for more effective policing.

The filter will thus tend to increase the number of potential targets for paedophiles while reducing the probability that they'll be caught. Are we expected to believe that such outcomes are not intended?

The typical reaction of filtering proponents is to imply that critics of the plan are in some way involved with paedophilia. I believe that shoe is on the other foot. Deciding which proponents are active predators, which are willing accomplices and which are unwitting parties to crime, I'll leave to those who know more than I.

Electronic Frontiers Australia chair Dale Clapperton has said that Internet content filtering could lead to censorship of drugs, political dissent and other legal freedoms: “Once the public has allowed the system to be established, it is much easier to block other material,” Clapperton said. Do you trust the government with such a Weapon of Mass Deception? Do you trust every possible future government?

The nebulous benefits do not justify the costs:
- financial costs;
- costs to the performance of our Internet infrastructure;
- costs to the safety of our children and
- costs to the integrity of our democracy.

This is not something that a wholesome democratic government would want.

What's really going on? Is there true concern for the welfare of children or is something sinister lurking beneath the surface?

From Whence It Came
I've come to the conclusion that this beast has many origins.

Our leaders perceive a political imperative. In the immortal words of Yes Minister: “Something must be done. This is something, therefore we must do it.".

The current government was elected on a platform that included a policy that would “require ISPs to offer a "clean feed" internet service”. That policy referred specifically to preventing Australian children from accessing content. What the government now proposes goes well beyond that policy. Is this a perversion of the intent? It's certainly a subversion of any mandate their election may have given them.

There are some weird people in this world. Some of them feel a need to control others. I reckon the mindset is akin to that which leads some to kill others – and sometimes themselves – because the others believe or behave differently to what the weird promote. I say “promote” because the weird don't always practice what they preach.

Some nominally democratic governments fear an enlightened electorate. Senator Conroy has famously revealed that the proposed filter is intended to block “unwanted content”; a term which he has, to this day, not defined. He has, however, confirmed that the list of blocked content will be secret. How much that is unfavourable to the government of the day will end up as ”unwanted content”? Our government would prefer that we didn't find out.

Parents for whom, as children, television was a child-minder substitute, want to use the Internet in the same way with their offspring. Despite attempts to mitigate the harm, television has never been a safe child-minder: the advertising industry took advantage of parental neglect to subvert generations. The Internet is less amenable to mitigation than television.

It's a Jungle Out There
Clive Hamilton paints a sad picture of a neglected child, losing his innocence on the evil Internet. The world is a hazardous place. (Would one without danger be worth living in?) Parents are responsible for the welfare of their children in the face of those inevitable hazards.

Clive's article seems to assume that the parents of the child in question are negligent: that they've left an uneducated youngster alone in a hazardous situation. He then seems to imply that society must compensate for the inadequacies of those parents. How far do we warp our society to pander to people who, on the evidence of Clive's article, are unfit to parent?

Knives are dangerous, as are other sharp or pointed things. Do we ban anything with an edge or a point, or do we educate children and supervise them until they can be trusted with the potential danger? A child's parents are responsible for ensuring that their child is equipped to deal with the world as it is.

Roads are dangerous places. Do we set the speed limit at walking-pace, so children can play safely on the roads? Do we educate children and safeguard them until they are as safe as possible by themselves? Once again, responsibility rests with the parents.

As Electronic Frontiers Australia points out: Politics is no substitute for parenting.

Bernadette McMenamin has been reported as wondering, if the filter won't work (actually, the phrase she's said to have used is “completely ineffective”), what all the fuss is about. The answer is given above, but I'll rephrase it concisely: While failing to achieve its purported aims, attempts at filtering will do substantial harm. Among other shortcomings, increasing the hazards to children. That's ineffective like a backfiring cannon.

That Ms McMenamin's ill-considered statement was so widely covered is a sad commentary on the media. Were they deliberately holding the lady up for ridicule?

The nature of pornography
The article The Pursuit of Innocents gives a good overview of the complexities of child pornography.

In the 1990s, I was told about certain materials that were available on the Internet. I didn't believe it. At the time, the Web was in its infancy and searching for such nasties was not illegal. I followed the advice I'd been given and pretty soon stopped. I'd started finding what I didn't believe existed.

Am I happier for finding out what I did? Anything but.

Would I be better off If I hadn't found out? Some say ignorance is bliss; I reckon it's just ignorance.

Much of what I found didn't seem pornographic to me. As The Pursuit of Innocents points out, the pornography isn't necessarily in the content, but the context.

I once read of a complaint about a department store's promotional catalogue. The complainant was offended that a child model was portrayed with her legs apart. This, in the context of children at play. But some people apparently do get their kicks from such stuff. So what should we do; ban all portrayal of children? That seems to be what the extremists want. What a sad, twisted world that would make.

The strange case of Bill Henson's photographs which some mob thought pornographic, but the experts didn't (OFLC classified the art PG), further illustrates the point. For mine, what I saw of the works was a sensitive depiction of fragile beauty. Problems were apparently caused in some images published by the media because faces were obscured, which distorted the image and drew attention away from a major focus. I reckon the artist, and particularly the models, created sublime works. The hysterical extremist reaction did them a grave disservice. Kevin Rudd, in particular, owes them an abject apology. While most of the criticism was simply misguided, his appears politically motivated. As I said, there are some weird people in the world. We've evidently elected some of them to government.

The better part of a year later, some of the images were found to be on the ACMA blacklist.

Law degenerates into farce in the case of Simpsons cartoon characters. In a nutshell: a judge has apparently decreed that, for the purposes of pornography legislation, the characters are people. Weird indeed.

I guess it boils down to this: pornography is in the eye of the beholder or perhaps pornography isn't what it is, it's what you think it is. Either way; if you think you see pornography then, to view the pornographer, you'll need a mirror.

If anything can be pornography to someone, then the term is pretty meaningless (which probably explains the nebulous definitions in legislation). In practice, pornography seems to be anything that might offend someone (in legislation a “reasonable person”; to extremists, anyone) or might give someone a thrill. It seems to be used by the weird as shorthand for anything they don't like or that they think someone of whom they disapprove might enjoy. Conflating pornography with child abuse materials does children no favours.

Proportionate Responses
Not all pornography involves sex or children. From what I've seen of child abuse material, there's no doubt that its creation harms the subjects. Other forms of pornography affect greater numbers and arguably do greater damage.

Though few these days would dare to say that greed is good, most of us seem to believe it. We idolise the most successfully avaricious and aspire to emulate them. Until their behaviour brings us all undone.

In these days of crumbling finances and the culpable walking away rich, downsides of the pornography of greed are evident. But most of us still lust after material wealth beyond our needs.

Popular culture revels in violence. Films and games portray extreme violence in graphic detail. Violence is presented as an acceptable response and solution.

Violence is self-perpetuating; a solution to nothing. Yet much popular culture portrays orgies of it. And our society is blighted.

Final Questions
Which forms of pornography do the most harm in society overall?
What can we realistically do about it?
Where would our resources be best allocated to minimise the harm?
In a modern, nominally open democratic society, does censorship have a place in this Age of Information?
In this Internet Age, to what degree can information be realistically controlled?

27April 2010

More than a year has passed and it looks like we'll have another election before a bill to implement this mad, bad and dangerous idea is presented to Parliament. An editorial in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald put forward a couple of points that I reckon bear repeating. The piece attributes the filtering policy to minister Stephen Conroy. The minister did not create the policy; he's just a functionary, charged with its implementation. His dogged determination can, I think, be attributed to the character of one whose background is as a right-wing Labor party head-kicker.

To paraphrase from the editorial:
Explanations for what is proposed have been inadequate, and the justifications equally so. Sites dealing with child pornography and bestiality are listed as among those that would be banned - just as publications with similar content would be in other media. What's so special about the internet? The answer is: nothing. But the government compares the internet with means of publishing - books, films - and assumes it should be subject to the same classification controls as they are. In fact it should be compared with free means of communication - speech, telephones, mail, perhaps newspapers - which it more closely resembles, and in which governments intervene less because intervention is less likely to be effective.

Technology, in effect, makes red herrings of arguments about child pornography and terrorist communications. As information technology experts attest, a filter will not work. Child pornography and other horrors will still be available to those internet users who pursue the (not particularly sophisticated) ways to circumvent the filter. The great majority of internet users, needless to say, will steer well clear unprompted. But by trying to control the net, our government raises expectations that such a thing can be done. When the measure fails, as it will, there will be pressure to crack down harder, to restrict freedoms further. And what happens when various pressure groups - well intended, no doubt, every one of them - decide that they would like views opposing theirs censored, and start to pressure governments to limit net access further? Can we be confident that our government would defend freedom of speech in particular instances, now that it has so easily given away the general principle?

Governments the world over are uncomfortable with the loss of control brought about by the Internet. Those that are fit to govern will learn to be comfortable with it. The others will try to reassert control.

The filtering policy puts our government firmly among the latter. The untruths and partial truths employed in support of that policy give no grounds for confidence in the integrity of our politicians. Australian politics has evidently degraded to the point that the citizenry needs protection from the legislature. Protections for freedom of speech and freedom from interference with access to information are imperative.

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