No Clean Feed campaign needs to drop their "censorship" obsession

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There is a fair bit of soul searching that seems to be going on in the “No Clean Feed” movement of late, especially following the lack of mass-rallies in support of the campaign following the release of the Federal Government’s report into the Internet filter.

The debate is turning around how the campaign and its leadership can best express the major flaws of the Government’s filter. Some commentary, led by Crikey pundits like Possum Pollytics and Bernard Keane, had led the No Clean Feed movement to thinking strategically about how to approach the campaign – targeting the Government where it could hurt: electorally. (Unfortunately, as Possum points out, the Internet filter is not, and is unlikely to become, a significant election issue.)

Many in the movement, including the folk at Electronic Frontiers Australia (a cyber rights group) have decided that they should focus on the “censorship” angle. That is, they should point out that the Internet filter is a slippery slope (or the thin end of the wedge) towards online political censorship:

Focus on the fundamental problem with the Government’s plan – “they are going to open the door to banning political content!” Every conversation should quickly drift you,”yeah, but they are gonna ban political stuff like euthanasia and abortion and who the hell knows what else – you might disagree with it, but we don’t need to ban that stuff?”

There are several groups going down this line: Reporters Without Borders for example says Australia risks joining the “censorship club”:

If Australia were to introduce systematic online content filtering, with a relatively broad definition of the content targeted, it would be joining an Internet censors club that includes such countries as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Other groups go down this line, comparing Australia’s Internet filter with those used by totalitarian, third world regimes.

Many also make the point that the Internet filter opens the door to online political censorship, as ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority – the authority tasked with keeping the blacklist) can decide unilaterally what sites are blocked. The logic is that the site blacklist is kept secret, and that a future Commonwealth Government could direct ACMA to blacklist sites that discuss “politically sensitive” issues, like abortion, euthanasia or drug use – or even other “objectionable” political views.

Drop the censorship line

In my view, the No Clean Feed campaign’s focus on the Internet filter equating to political censorship is foolish. It does not live up to most Australians’ lived experience. Few Australians are affected by the “censorship” inherent in the current refused classification material regime.

Josh Mehlman at the ABC’s Drum discusses why the campaign so far is largely an “echo chamber”:

Filter opponents appear to believe Twitter, online petitions, protests and letter-writing campaigns will be enough.

However, 10,000 people blacking out their avatars, retweeting blog posts and furiously agreeing with each other on Twitter merely adds to the cacophony of the echo chamber; it has no effect in the real world.

The closed circle of the Australian Twitterati and their friends in the technology and political media might well believe everyone is against the internet filter since everyone they know is talking about it.

(Of course, he’s good at criticism, but provides no concrete suggestions, other than “the campaign should be better”.)

For all the reasons that the movement has castigated itself over (wrongly) focusing on the language of “clean feed”, Internet speeds or similar, the language of “censorship” is similarly the wrong track.

Most Australians don’t care about censorship. If they did, complaints about our existing censorship regime (the classification system) would be higher. I’ve written about this here: Filtering out the muck and the filth:

The Australian Government already censors most material that Australians are (legally) allowed to read, watch or listen to. …

The problem with the #nocleanfeed crowd is that they’re clamouring over the civil liberties arguments, the “Aunt Glady”, wowser arguments, and freedom of expression arguments, only when it threatens their download speeds.

The Internet filter proposes to apply the same classification standard that exists for every other publication type in Australia, to the Internet. We already have the Government telling us what we can and can’t watch, read or listen to on TV, DVDs, radio or with books and other print publications and art.

All the kerfuffle over civil liberties, when Bill Henson’s photos were seized for being “child p-rnography”, was largely confined to the “latte-set” – inner city trendies and arts boffins. What the Henson episode showed was that most Australians were unconcerned that a famous Australian artist was accused of being a p-rnographer – more so when it was discovered that he visited primary schools to look for models.

The same can be said of the Howard Government’s introduction of sedition laws. Although there was a hue and cry about them from civil liberties groups and online action organisations like Get Up, the on-the-ground response from the electorate was completely absent.

So long as the Government says that the list of refused classification materials includes weird p-rn and fetish material, Jihadi propaganda and other unsavoury material, the censorship line won’t work.

Australians don’t think they live in a country like China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Even with an Internet filter, Australia won’t be like those regimes, even if it has the technology and tools to become like them.

The real, lived experience of most Australians won’t see them lose a single right or liberty. Most Australians will think that it is a small thing to lose – access to fetish p-rn, euthanasia manuals and Jihadist manifestos – for “cyber safety”. Even if the filter doesn’t work.

Focusing on censorship has a “silver bullet” for the No Clean Feed campaign is misguided.

In my view, stronger arguments can be made that:

  1. The filter won’t catch, find or stop a single child s-x offender;
  2. The filter will harm Australia’s productivity and economic prosperity, especially in the areas of education and medicine; and
  3. The money spent on the filter would be more effectively spent on the Australian Federal Police, who will actually find, stop and catch pedophiles.

I will be updating my proposed Key Messages in the next few days, focusing more on concerns from parents, and giving some more concrete advice for lobbying Members of Parliament.

10 responses to “No Clean Feed campaign needs to drop their "censorship" obsession”

  1. JDNSW Avatar

    While extreme censorship along Chinese lines is unlikely at present, are you so certain that once the mechanism is established for the first secret censorship of a major communications channel in peacetime Australia, that NO future government will use it? By far the most likely use of the planned system is to hide from naive users who do not use circumvention websites that can be perfectly legally blacklisted under the “instruction in crime” bit of RC. This could include planning websites for illegal rallies for example.It is a bit naive on your part to say “The Internet filter proposes to apply the same classification standard that exists for every other publication type in Australia, to the Internet” because this is simply not what is proposed – and ignores the fact that the term “publication” is of doubtful accuracy for web pages, and that it is only intended to apply it to a minuscule subset of web pages – which are quite likely to change rapidly anyway. With over a trillion web pages indexed by Google over a year ago, increasing at over a billion a day, the government is proposing to censor a mere 1,000 – 10,000. This can not possibly make any difference to the web experience except to censor a few web pages that are embarrassing to the government, so it is a reasonable assumption that this is the purpose. Add to that the careful avoidance of the word “censorship” and the release of the policy while all attention was on Copenhagen and the PM overseas, and the conclusion is even more inescapable.

  2. Alexander White Avatar

    I can't see it being in any major party's interest to go down the route of the Chinese or Iranians. Even if they did use the filter to actively block political views, it would be extreme political views, such as blocking access to “hate” politics such as neo-nazis, white supremacists or Jihadist Muslim groups. I completely agree that the filter is ineffective, and will probably block legitimate websites. It will probably also let through inappropriate material. I also completely agree that the web is so large that no filter could ever possibly accurately block every objectionable site.I don't agree that the filter is the first step toward a totalitarian state. The sedition laws, and the ABCC are far worse than the proposed filter.

  3. Grant Avatar

    There is great potential for the abuse of this filter by people with an agenda. That being said i agree with this post. The censorship campaign is using arguments that most people don't understand or generally care about. A more mainstream argument is needed to attract the attention of the masses. As soon as some one starts talking about a proxy or VPN you lose that section of the audience who doesn't understand what it is. However if you talk money everyone listens, how much it will cost to implement, the flow on cost to consumers and the cost to the Australian economy. All these are subjects which the majority of people can understand and immediately relate to.

  4. Dan Buzzard Avatar

    Do Neo-Nazi's, White Supremacists or Jihadist Muslim groups have the right to free-speech?In my opinion absolutely they do, that doesn't mean I have to agree with them but if I cannot respect their right to freedom-of-speech then I cannot reasonably expect society to respect mine. Supporting a person's right to free speech does not mean we have to agree with what they say and our free-speech enables us to object and challenge their ideas.When we deny free-speech to one particular group of people we begin the downward steps towards totalitarianism, first we block the neo-nazi's then the white supremacists and who's next? Atheist's? we do have allot of religious politicians is it really that far fetched to expect Atheist websites to find their way onto the blacklist? Censorship is cumulative it will start my blocking only the “worst of the worst” but is it really that hard to imagine a gradual expansion of the list, especially with all the special interest groups lobbying like crazy to have their personal dislikes added?

  5. Dan Buzzard Avatar

    Many people would consider neo-nazis to be far worse than Atheists, but the human race is very diverse not everybody shares the same opinion. There are certainly creationist’s out there who despise Atheist’s and will lobby hard to have Atheist website’s blacklisted. Just because you consider something inappropriate it doesn’t mean the next person will, and vise-versa.

    Perhaps the person operating the blacklist will decide that your opinions are somehow offensive to their sacred cow and decide to add you to the blacklist. Offence is in they eye of the beholder.

  6. Alexander White Avatar

    If the hate-speech is inciting violence, persecution or harassment, then it should not be “free”. To say that it is a short step from banning hate-speech from neo-nazis to banning atheism is ludicrous and does a disservice to the entire NoCleanFeed movement.Are criminals who conspire to commit a crime, murder or assault protected under your notion of “free speech”? Your right to free speech ends where it infringes on my right to safety. Hate-speech infringes on that right.

  7. Grant Avatar

    Agreed, the internet censorship issue is a non issue for a lot of people.But you're comparing apples (TV, radio and print) with oranges (the internet), it doesn't really qualify your argument.The internet is a vastly different beast to TV, radio and print, for example you cannot apply the same classification regime to a website where gay people might be discussing issues about sexuality, a swingers website, child abuse support website. We may argue that any of these sites may contain 'contextually' valid pictures that fall in to the abyss that is the RC un-category.The furore surrounding the SA Attorney General Michael Atkinson and the explosion of media surrounding the legislation enacted regarding censorship of websites is a good example of media going bananas to make change.I think if the internet censorship plan went ahead, and Joe Smith of Normal street was alone and his wife was out, and he was trying to access Redtube (which is on the Wikileaks leaked blacklist, close enough to the official one) and he couldn't access his porn, I think you will see a significant backlash, as most men look at porn on the net, well I do anyway.I do agree with what you mention at the end though.

  8. Alexander White Avatar

    In my view, the Internet does not deserve a special status above other media. In my view, the real issue is outdated classification laws (which I think are woeful and outdated). To say that the Internet is something special that shouldn't be subject to laws that every other publication is, is wrong-headed.I agree that the filter will not be successful and will be a waste of money – hence why I'm arguing for the filter money to be given to the Federal Police cyber crimes unit. I disagree about the Joe Smith pornography argument. Most men, even if they do regularly use the Internet to search for pornography, would not admit it, and I don't think it is so important that they would change their vote (especially since they can access legal, classified pornography from newsagents and petrol stations).

  9. Michael Avatar

    Alex, why shouldn't we use every argument at our disposal to fight this proposal? If it gets the silly idea overturned, good.

    This pig-headed push for censorship, and censorship does not just mean "political censorship", is misguided. It's not just filtering ("happy fields of flowers with pink fluffy bunnies" imagery) of the internet. When topics such as abortion advice, safe drug use, euthanasia, etc. all fall under such a scheme, that counts as censorship in my book.

    If Conroy were to only ONCE going to say "RC IS…" instead of his political "RC includes…", I'd be willing to cut him some slack. But by not giving us the full truth about what he counts in and out of RC for the purpose of this filter, he is censoring himself.

    The fact is, this is driven by Kevin Rudd himself, any other leader would have looked at all the gaffes and flaws of this proposal and knocked it on the head, but given that Conroy has not once had his fingers smacked for being so stupid shows that either Conroy has so much clout that Rudd's afraid of him or that this is driven by Mr Rudd's ideals and those quiet "stakeholders" we keep hearing about.

    I was a stalwart Labor supporter for the last decade, this subject has radically altered my view. And yes, before that I was a Liberal supporter, but the moment they tried this idiocy, I switched my allegiance. I have done it again, because I believe this issue is as important as all other policies Labor had in their favor.

    1. alexjpwhite Avatar

      When topics such as abortion advice, safe drug use, euthanasia, etc. all fall under such a scheme, that counts as censorship in my book.

      Sure, I completely agree. However, as far as messaging for an effective campaign goes, it's not a good argument. Most Australians are comfortable with the notion of some material being restricted (aka, censored). The idea of Internet exceptionalism isn't going to win widespread support to the campaign to oppose the filter.

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