Some time ago, I wrote on newmatilda.com that while Western countries still had a greater degree of individual freedom than their putative rival, China, their trajectories were narrowing as China slowly opened and the West succumbed to the siege mentality of the "War on Terror".
It’s worth revisiting this as the Labor Government prepares to implement its election promise of providing "clean, family-friendly" internet feeds. Up to this point, talk from Stephen Conroy’s office has been high on rhetoric and low on detail about the proposal, seeking to equate those who would prefer an unfiltered internet with seekers of child pornography. This is not only patently ridiculous, it is a slur — and it is a political Trojan horse.
Child pornography is of course a problem, and nobody is defending it. Any child pornography on the internet or resident on file-sharing programs should be traced to its providers and consumers, and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Who could say otherwise? However, laws exist for precisely this purpose. If the legislation or the enforcement is found to be inadequate, it should be strengthened.
But child pornography is of course not the real issue.
Australians might have been misled by the Government’s initial announcement that it was possible to "opt out" of the filtering. According to industry insiders, users can choose to opt-out of the filter which blocks content deemed unsuitable for children, but there is in fact no opt-out for content that is deemed "illegal".
Regarding the first blacklist category, of course there are those who not only do not want to access pornography, they would prefer that their internet connection could not, perhaps for their children’s sakes, and certainly at schools. This is a reasonable stance, but begs questions. What about sites with sex education? Why can people not simply use PC-based content filtering programs, which many claim are more effective? Why should a government decide what its citizens cannot access in their own homes? And most seriously from a civil libertarian perspective, will those who chose to opt out be placed on what is essentially a Government list of perverts?
As for the second category, its broadness raises an immediate red flag. Will the Government release the list of sites that will be illegal under this legislation? What if sites include, say, useful information about drugs? What about politics? Anybody who frequents sites with political dissent can vouch for them having a wide range of views, and a wide range of users. Many have user-generated content, with everything from incisive analysis to buffoonery calling for certain people’s heads. Will this last type of content make an entire site illegal? Will the threat of legal action force sites without the resources to moderate every conversation to close? And again, why should any government decide what information its citizens can or cannot have access to?
I work in publishing, and have studied its history at tertiary level. It’s disputed as to whether Gutenberg invented the printing press — there is strong evidence to believe that the conglomeration of inventions that led to its development originated in China — but what is never in dispute is the impact that printing had on the distribution and proliferation of knowledge in Europe. The quantity and types of information available climbed exponentially. Scholars who would have travelled for years trying to find a particular book could now not only read it and know that its contents would exist for far longer, they and others could publish pamphlets debating it. Of course, much like the internet, quality of content varied wildly, particularly in the initial stages, but it is not underestimating its impact to say that this upsurge in both knowledge and its sharing were critical to the Enlightenment.
What would the Renaissance have looked like if publishing had continued to be largely a church endeavour?
Aside from the moral issues, there are technical aspects that bode ill for the free flow of information. The Government’s own pilot figures show that up to 6 per cent of sites were blocked incorrectly in the latest trial.
Back to the shrinking gap between China and the West: the great irony is that if this pilot is put into practice — as it will be if people don’t speak out — the internet access I have in this outpost of China will be freer than that back home. Welcome to the Information Age.
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