Thursday, January 03, 2008

Internet censorship rant

"If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."

So sayeth our new Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy when defending Labor's intention to force ISPs in Australia to filter internet content.

It should be mentioned here that the planned internet filtering is being presented as a means of protecting children from material that is inappropriate for them, with an "unfiltered" option available to adults who want to opt out. In other words, it has NOTHING to do with tackling child pornography - unless of course the Senator is suggesting that anyone who wants an unfiltered feed wants it so they can access child porn. What is Senator Conroy talking about?

(1) The most cynical interpretation is that the good Senator knows damn well that the proposal has nothing to do with child porn and is knowingly trying to confuse the two in the public's mind. If so, it seems to have succeeded in the case of Daily Telegraph writer Galen English. Her column merrily bobbles along saying things like "Besides, what evidence is there that young children using the web are regularly stumbling across child pornography? Sites used by paedophiles are well hidden and frequently relocated to avoid detection", acting for all the world as if child porn is not already illegal to access and possess for both children and adults.

I believe one implication of Senator Conroy deliberately trying to confuse the public by engaging in a smear that he knows to be baseless is this: he has no intention of responding to any protests on this issue, his only intention is to discredit the protesters. Appeals to the government directly will not work. Appeals must be made to the public at large. The effectiveness of that approach will I think depend on how knowledgeable the public is about the Internet these days. I fear that they aren't knowledgeable enough.

(2) Alternatively, Senator Conroy himself might not be knowledgeable enough, and might just be stupid and incredibly ill-informed about his own portfolio. Some research from uni I came across last year suggested that far too many people view the Internet in a way that isn't entirely rational. Rather than a tool or a mere network of computers exchanging data, many people see it as a kind of gateway to the unconscious, a dangerous other place where dark and secret desires that have been stifled by the conscious mind are free to roam. While adults can usually navigate the pathways without too much trouble, children are seen as vulnerable due to their immature judgement, and when porn or violence suddenly leaps out at them they'll end up psychically damaged and end up, say, thinking that suicide and self-harm are wonderful things.

In such a view, much of the content of the Internet seems to exist outside of rational, conscious legal control: all you can do is try to block it out. The confusion between "adult content" and actual illegal content like child pornography would indeed seem blurry if you don't understand that both moral and legal norms do already exist with regard to what is available on the Internet, both in Australia and around the world. They only need to be applied in a sensible way. If Senator Conroy is stupid rather than malicious, it's a failure of both government policy that they're concentrating on blanket censorship rather than working with the Internet community to try and address the existence of morally and legally problematic content. It lacks imagination, ignores the advice of people with actual knowledge of the issue, and shows a terrifying deficiency of technological understanding from a government that's promised us a technologically spurred "education revolution".

My uni degree is supposedly teaching me to, among other things, be a more intelligent activist. I don't know how well it's succeeding. But from my less than perfectly worded speculations above, as well as a few other thoughts, I can think of a few suggestions that I would make to anti-censorship activists were I in a position to make some:
First, don't assume that the government is going to listen to your concerns in good faith. Assume that they are out to get you. They may not be, they may be nice, but don't count on it.
Second, reach out to the general public as much as you can. This especially includes off-line activity targeted at people who don't use the Internet. Assume that such people don't understand the Internet. Suggest that the supposed danger of it, particularly to children, has been vastly exaggerated. Seek to explain why. But whatever you do, don't patronise them.
Third, don't take being called child pornography supporters lying down. I would note that some civil libertarians have expressed concerns that anyone who wants to opt out of the ISP censorship regime might get stigmatised in the future. I point out that this is happening right now, and it's coming from the man charged with creating the censorship regime: Stephen Conroy in his comment above has as good as said that anyone who wants uncensored net access wants the freedom to access child porn. Call him on it, if possible. I wish I knew the right question to ask, but "I want to opt out of the ISP regime. Why do you think that means I want access to child pornography?" sets the tone about right I think. It needs to be snappier, though.
Fourth, the Rudd government may be vulnerable to an oblique attack: the promised education revolution, particularly when talking about its promises of making Australia more proficient in IT training, could conceivably become a vector for concerns about internet censorship. This could conceivably overcome attempts by the Rudd government to ignore democratic objection to Conroy's proposal if it's seen as a betrayal of one of Rudd's core election promises, and not just as a side issue. Keywords so far describing the problems with the censorship proposal have been "oppressive" and "expensive". I would like to add another: stupid.

After all, this proposal is stupid. It's been hatched together by people too stupid to understand the Internet, it's attempting to address issues related to the Internet in a stupid way, its defense relies on convincing people that it's alright to be stupid and let the government take care of all their thinking for them, and it's going to destroy the promise of the education revolution that it would make our economy more knowledge-based: nothing discourages intelligence and encourages stupidity like censorship does.

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