Sunday, January 06, 2008

Internet censorship: some numbers, some publications, some thoughts

A paper from the Australian Institute (homepage here) published in 2003 outlines a proposal for a mandatory filtering system which looks broadly similar to the one Labor wants to go ahead with, although their proposals went further. I don't know if this is the basis of Labor's policy, but there are some interesting (and from an anti-censorship viewpoint, worrying) statistics on support for censorship among parents of teenagers on pages 22-24 of the paper:

Newspoll was commissioned to survey the attitudes of parents with children aged 12 to 17 (inclusive). The survey was conducted over the weekends of 13-16 and 20-23 February 2003 and the sample size was 377 randomly selected households with at least one child in the specified age group. The margin of error is five per cent or less.


Seventy eight per cent of these households report having access to the Internet at home, a much higher proportion than the average, which is closer to one third.

On the question of censorship, when these parents were asked "Would you support a system which automatically filtered out Internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise?" the result was the following:

Ninety-three percent of parents of teenagers support this proposal while only five per cent oppose it, with three per cent unsure. One might expect that younger parents would be less in favour of these strategies given more sexually liberal views among younger adults. Instead, our survey finds that younger parents, those in the 25-34 age bracket, are 100 per cent in favour (compared to 92 per cent of those aged 35-49 and 93 per cent of those aged 50 and over).

Of course, not all Australian citizens are parents, and not all parents are parents of 12-17 year olds (inclusive), but that's still a pretty hefty voting bloc there with an incredibly unified viewpoint, a statistic which I don't think it's possible to disregard just because of the relatively small sample size.

My initial belief that people support mandatory censorship due to unfamiliarity with the Internet may not hold water given the high uptake of Internet use among this censorous segment of the population. It might be the case that the Internet connection at these households is usually purchased for the benefit of the teenagers rather than the adults, who don't use it. I could see how a combination of parental unfamiliarity with something that's right in their homes, where their children are in reach, could contribute to alarmism.

But that would only be a theory. It could just as easily be the case that these parents have plumbed the depths of what's out there, and don't want to think about even the minutest possibility that their children might come across something untoward. It would also explain the even higher rate of support for mandatory filtering among parents aged 25-34, who I would expect to have some Internet experience as a teenager/young adult under their belt, as well. (Parents as young as 25 with children as old as 17? Or even 12? Something about those statistics at the low end of the parental age bracket is skewed).

As to Labor's policy itself, it probably would've been a good idea to pay more attention to it prior to the election. Their pre-election proposal, "Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety", is still available for download here.

Apropos of nothing in particular, the insistence on prefixing anything net-related with "cyber-" sets my teeth on edge: "cyber-safety", teaching children to be "responsible cyber-citizens", "cyber-bullying", "cyber-stalking" - it might make sense within the whole "net as cyberspace/virtual reality" paradigm of the 80's and 90's, but I don't think it's accurate or productive to continue treating online material as somehow separate from mundane reality. Today's Internet is a part of everyday reality, not separate from it, and cybertalking in cyberlanguage about cyberactions that supposedly only have cybereffects in cyberspace just doesn't help address the new media issues of today in a realistic manner.

Anyway, here's a curious sentence from Labor's fact sheet on page 5: "Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material". [emphasis added]

Prominent Australian political blogs like The Bartlett Diaries and the Road to Surfdom have picked up on Senator Conroy's "civil libertarians = kiddyfiddlers" comment, and consider it a baseless political smear. If it is just a cynical smear that Conroy doesn't himself believe, I wonder why his pre-election fact sheet includes this conflation of X-rated material with child pornography, and seems to assume that the issue of child porn online has been adequately dealt with when children have been restricted from accessing it? Perhaps the Senator really is so confused about the issue that he can't tell the difference between the two different Internet boogiemen of children accessing pornography, and anyone accessing and/or distributing child pornography?

I think I'm going to buck the conventional wisdom that the Senator is cynical, and favour the assumption that he's stupid: he genuinely believes that "restricting children's access to online child pornography and X-rated material" is a coherent policy goal. Perhaps he assumes, as too many ignorant people do, that vast tracts of illegal and disgusting material are strewn all across the Internet within easy reach of anyone, and all that can be done about it is to reign in those young people who have not yet succumbed to its alleged allure.

The question I guess, then, is "is the rest of the Australian public also that stupid?". If this was a sane discussion, I'd have faith in Australians to come to the right conclusion, but I fear on the issue of the Internet, fearmongering and alarmism could beat out sanity very easily. In fact judging by the statistics of what Australian parents of teenagers want that I listed above, they've already done so.

No comments: