Will I be living in China in 2010?

December 24, 2009 at 12:31 am Leave a comment

Dear international reader. Here is a question for you: what do Egypt, Iran, China, North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia and Australia have in common? Let’s guess. Deserts? Well, Australia has the Gibson desert; Iran has the Kavir desert; China has the Gobi desert; Egypt has the Sahara but North Korea and Burma? Nah, no deserts.  Mmmmmm…what else could these countries have in common? Similar coloured national flags? Nah. Are they all democracies? Last time I looked, North Korea is a dictatorship and Burma (or Myanmar) has been struggling since 1948 to establish a modern democratic political system.

Oh no, wait. I know what these countries all have in common: INTERNET CENSORSHIP. It’s taken me nearly a week to calm down following the Australian Federal Government’s announcement that it will proceed in 2010 with a MANDATORY internet censorship scheme. Now, international reader – you may have thought Australia was a democracy in which we could freely access information. Wrong. As of mid- 2010, we will be a country that:

  • has a secret black list of internet sites banned by the Government of Australia
  • forces ISPs to filter internet traffic and block any material deemed unsuitable or inappropriate
  • possibly blocks innocent or legitimate sites (I suspect that the TS blog might get itself blocked for this very post alone)

The so-called Clean Feed programme is designed to block any material or websites that feature child sex abuse, sexual violence, adult content and instructions on crime. But in March 2009, the proposed blacklist was leaked and showed that banned sites go far beyond kid porn or violence. The list included links to poker sites, YouTube, gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia, euthanasia sites, fringe religions, fetish sites, Christian sites, a tour operator and a Queensland dentist.

Let me get something straight before I continue. It is important to protect kids from creepy pedophiles and whackos. Last time I looked though, this was the job of parents and family (like this). When I was growing up, there was no Internet but there was “stranger danger”, there were pedophiles and whackos. I was warned not to get in a car with strangers or talk to strangers. Okay, so the Internet makes it easier for kids to innocently connect with whackos or for whackos to seek them out. But IMHO the job of parents is to “police” kids’ access to the internet and instil common sense into kids. So why isn’t the Clean Feed scheme an opt-in one – parents can choose to participate in the Government’s internet censorship if they wish. Also, I think the Government might find that pedophiles and creepy types tend to hang out in chat rooms and conduct conversations via Skype or email – will these be blocked as well?

I have some real fears about this internet censorship proposal. Firstly, who the heck will make the decision to block a site? We live under the Rule of Law in Australia (well, maybe no more) – so shouldn’t the judicial system make the decision to block a site rather than some petty, invisible public servant? Then I ask: has the electorate been consulted on this, you know, the AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE?? Will the blocking and filtering slow down our access to the Internet (what little we are allowed to access that is)? I read somewhere that it could slow down internet access by as much as 87%.

I’d also ask: what exactly does “inappropriate” mean? Is it inappropriate to have access to sites on euthanasia for example? The invisible bureaucrat might consider it inappropriate and whack it on the banned list but you or I might consider that it is our democratic right to have access to material on euthanasia. Whether we read it or not isn’t the issue.

Will a blog that questions the cost or effectiveness of the clean feed be blocked? Will I  get access to material on Christian Science? My dad was a Christian Scientist and my grandmother was a CS practitioner. Some people believe CS is a cult and since the leaked list of banned sites referred to “fringe religions”, does this mean CS sites will be blocked?  I don’t practise CS and I very rarely read anything on Christian Science but it is my right to have access to this material should I choose. It is not for some nanny state to tell me what I can and can’t follow in the way of religion.

I am a taxpayer in Australia (and I pay high taxes let me tell you). I have a right to know the following:

  • why hasn’t there been transparency around the year-long tests being conducted with ISPs, particularly around the results?
  • what is the exact mechanism for filtering – by keyword, by URL?
  • will chat rooms (where I believe whackos tend to hang out) also be banned? what about Skype or email?
  • why is the proposed banned list secret squirrel?
  • why hasn’t Stephen Conroy (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) engaged in true debate on this issue of censorship? I’ve seen him on TV, hitting back at his critics by calling them defenders of child pornography and carrying on about how internet censorship will help protect the children. This is a simplistic defense because the proposed clean feed has serious implications around press freedom and for ISPs (consider this as an example: an ISP’s filter doesn’t work and some creepy dude indulges in some kiddy porn or abuse. Will the ISP be held legally responsible or charged along with the creepy dude?)
  • what is the cost of this censorship? I have read it’s AU$44 million. And how easy do you think this filtering system will be to bypass?
  • have you thought about how industry will react (considering no doubt that many legitimate websites will be caught up in this whacko filtering scheme). Will Australia continue to be competitive, innovative?
  • Conroy might want to remember this name: Tom Wood. Wood was the 16 year old who, in 2007, took just 30 minutes to hack into Australia’s $84 million porn filter. Kids who have grown up with the internet will devise ways to get around a clean feed, I would bet on it.
  • and lastly, I would ask our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of democracy and answer this question: Is internet censorship compatible with democracy?

Meanwhile, please sign the petition against the censorship scheme. Even Google (who you know I rant about from time to time) has expressed its concern over the Australian Government’s plans to introduce a mandatory filtering regime for Internet Service Providers saying the scheme would be “.. the first of its kind amongst western democracies”.  And Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to Rudd, which you can read here.

This is simply an embarrassment for Australia. I am hoping the Australian people will challenge this mandatory scheme but I fear that our apolitical nature (along with our preference for only ever getting worked up into a lather over sport) will mean in 2010 Australia will have its very own Berlin Wall. RIP Australian democracy.

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Entry filed under: Australia, Internet. Tags: , , , .

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