Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Net filtering: Australian government decision provokes furore

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The Australian government has confirmed plans to introduce a mandatory filter for a list of internet websites publishing illegal material. The announcement follows pilot testing of ISP-level filters which, according to Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Communications Minister, demonstrates that the blocking of banned material can be done ‘with 100 per cent accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed’. Blacklisted sites find their way there by a combination of a public complaints mechanism, government censors and URLs provided by international agencies.

The aim of the policy is to protect children from accessing sites by accident, although it seems to have slipped somewhat towards a blacklist of content aimed largely at adults, and is founded on the basis that some internet material is not acceptable in a civilised society. So far – so good. But, as always, the difficulty is in deciding what to do about it, in the context of material being easily accessible with just a few clicks in the ‘privacy of your own home’. If an opinion poll on the Sydney Morning Herald is anything to go by, Australians are up in arms: currently, 96% out of more than 18,500 responses is against the idea. Interestingly, Conroy cites ‘about 15’ western governments which have encouraged or enforced filtering; these appear to include Denmark and Norway while Italy and Germany [registration required; limited viewing time] have also already passed the necessary legislation. [edit: 17 December to add new link]

Citing fairly emotive phrases like ‘censorship of the internet’ and ‘denial of free speech’ is unhelpful here: censorship exists in any society – for example, the use of boards of censors to view films before being released – and the question thus seems to be one of what censorship would allow; and where, in a liberal democracy, it must stop. Judgments are always going to be subjective and these are subject to change in line with shifting social mores (the British Board of Film Censors has over recent years adopted a much more relaxed view of what films can be shown here, for example). Few would argue that the ‘right’ to view child pornography, for example, is a ‘human right’ (and what about the rights of those exploited in the production of that activity?) and neither is this a free speech issue (except in extremely libertarian constructs which most of us do not share).

A completely different, and much more provocative, example would be the issue of copyright theft – clearly, far from the issue of pornography and one which opponents might argue as being beyond the scope for action of governments seeking to define what is ‘acceptable in a civilised society’. On the other hand, I can see an argument that a blanket, nationwide ban on access to sites which infringe the copyrights of actors and musicians is a more preferable outcome to close, DPI-based examination of individuals’ internet traffic (it’s also likely to be cheaper for ISPs, too – but I’ll leave that aside).

What is the issue for me, therefore, is how we define those sites which get on the list; how open and public that list is; who makes the decisions about what sites are included on it; and what avenues of appeal there are. International comparisons on this issue are important – what is acceptable in one country may well not be acceptable in, for example, China or Iran – but these comparisons can not currently play any part in what one country does (and neither does a green light in one country for filtering give a generic green light to filtering in any other). We need to be careful to avoid making relativist associations between what happens in two countries with quite different approaches to democracy.

Part of the furore in Australia is that the banned list is not publicly available (actually, for quite sensible reasons currently since publishing it simply advertises where access to such material can be found) – and that sites have been found on it which are far from what most people would define as being ‘unacceptable in a civilised society’. This is clearly key. The openness and transparency of such lists, in the context of their content being made inaccessible, should prevent democratic governments from banning access to sites where it is not objectively justifiable to do so – for example on political grounds – and where challenges to inclusion on the list can be made. By itself, some examples of unreasonable inclusions on such lists does not obviate the principle of maintaining a list for these purposes.

In a society which is apparently happy to accept warnings before even late night television programmes, made on the grounds of the litigious society which we have become, concerning often rather minor considerations of taste and decency, the outrage concerning what internet sites to which we ought to block access and the implications of our actions in doing so provides an interesting commentary on the state of social attitudes.

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Written by Calvin

16/12/2009 at 5:13 pm

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