No Clean Feed campaign needs to drop their "censorship" obsession
January 6, 2010
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.
- UPDATE: Read the key messaging ideas for the No Clean Feed campaign.
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:
- The filter won’t catch, find or stop a single child s-x offender;
- The filter will harm Australia’s productivity and economic prosperity, especially in the areas of education and medicine; and
- 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.