19 February 2010

Big Brother is sending you email

Following on from my participation in the Great Australian Internet Blackout, I received a charming letter from Senator Stephen Conroy. OK, it's just a form letter, and he already had my email address from the protest letter I wrote to him. I just wanted to sound important.

Senator Conroy's pitch was simple: to defend the proposed mandatory internet filter. Really, it's the same old claptrap, with plenty of mentions of the children to disguise the hypocrisy. It also fails to address the same questions that we've been raising for years.

I'm offended by censorship. I'm pretty hard to offend, but I've never been as offended by any content as I am by the perceived need to ban it. All I see is a way to treat adults like children.

It seems, though, that not everyone is as libertarian as I am. McNair Ingenuity recently conducted a study on behalf of ABC's Hungry Beast program and showed that 80% of those surveyed were in favour of the government blocking content on the internet that would be refused classification elsewhere.

That said, not nearly so many people trust the government to run it. Only 50% think the government should be deciding what gets blocked. 70% voiced concern that the government could add sensitive material of which they do not approve, such as political dissent. Most importantly, more than 90% of those surveyed want the names of sites on the blacklist, and the reasons why they are on the blacklist, to be made public, as they are for movies and the like.

It seems that the government is missing the point of the filter, and not by accident. It's a fair call, at least in political circles, for the government to block sites that contain material that would otherwise be refused classification. However, if the government truly is still considering keeping the blacklist private, there is no public trust in the people administering the list. The leaked list from March last year inspires little confidence in the rate of false-positives and false-negatives on the list, and you can bet that if a site were wrongly added to the blacklist, anyone supporting such a site would have to fight tooth and nail to be permitted an Australian audience again.

"Charles Worm" posted a succinct comment to this effect on the Hungry Beast web site:
"My concern with the validity of this survey is that I don't believe that a majority of people understand the difference between material and is RC because it's illegal, and material that is RC because it's contraversial." [sic]
This is perhaps what the government is counting on the most. Few would question the imperative to censor the former, but many would be gravely concerned about censoring the latter. The former represents crime; the latter, despite Australian sedition laws, is merely thought control. How much simpler would it be to stifle debate on politically progressive topics if they could be removed entirely from our on-line perspective?

Yet, the scope of the discussion is, increasingly quietly, omitting the question of whether there should even be a mandatory internet filter at all. Whether there is a perceived need for it or not, it is costing many years and tens of millions of dollars to implement a system that will inconvenience ordinary law-abiding citizens and that any criminal or freedom fighter - if there's a difference - can already defeat in seconds. At least we can hope that Senator Conroy will stop talking about China and Iran now.

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