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Filtering the Net: Conroy’s Fantasy of Control

Filtering the Net: Conroy’s Fantasy of Control

by Binoy Kampmark
November 17, 2012

Regulation is second nature to Australia’s paternal puritans, who feel that citizens are mere infants in swaddling clothes terrified of the world beyond. The arrival of the Internet must have suitably terrified many of them, and one such figure has been Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy, an individual of limited imagination and paralysing fears. Or at least that’s the impression he gives.

His desperation to limit the world wide web is very much in evidence despite repeated calls that filters do not work. The No Clean Feed group, dedicated to stopping Internet censorship in Australia, states it in rather stark terms. “The filter will do nothing to prevent the people who are wilfully making, trading, and accessing child sexual abuse material.” A fact sheet release by Electronic Frontiers Australia makes the obvious point that the risks posed to children tend to come from “inappropriate contact with others” rather than “exposure to inappropriate content”. Material of a rather innocuous sort tends to be the victim of such a filtering scheme.

The measure has now been dropped, suggesting that Australia might have retreated from the global censorship regime. Common sense? Hardly. The response has been muddled, thrown off course, but not totally abandoned. On the one hand, there are claims that mandatory ISP filtering has been abandoned as a strategy. On the other, internet service providers will still be directed by Australian officialdom, including the Australian Federal Police to block “child abuse websites”. Those websites will feature on an INTERPOL list of naughties.

In Conroy’s words, “Australia’s largest ISPs have been issued notices requiring them to block these illegal sites in accordance with their obligations under the Telecommunications Act 1997.” This is censorship without censorship, the usual hollowing out of language that has become second nature.

There is speculation – Glyn Moody for one, writing for Techdirt (Nov 8), that this might be part of a broader strategy. Back down from a seemingly extreme stance, then pick a more modest position. The principle, however, remains. “After all, it’s a standard tactic to make totally outrageous initial demands so that anything less seems reasonable by comparison. Or perhaps it was Plan B: try to push through ISP filtering as Plan A, and that if that fails, drop back to ‘limited censorship’.”

The tendencies towards censorship in Australia seem pathological. Unelected officials are appointed to classify material that Australians might never read or see. The classification, named “refused classification” is tantamount to an official ban that is enforced through the infliction of penalties. Watch and distribute at your own peril.

As the National Classification Code defines it, the RC includes a series of elements – material that promotes, incites or instruct in matters of crime or violence and material that describes, depicts matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence of revolting or abhorrent phenomena. That “revulsion” must offend against the standards of morality and decency accepted by reasonable adults, a troubling control if ever there was one. If ever you wish to encounter the drudgery of Australian officialdom, the absence of the inner life, consult those behind their censorship regime.

As university academic Bjorn Landfelt explained, “There’s no clear definition of refused classification that can be debated in society” (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 16, 2009). The result can be rather absurd – in Australia, the best selling porn movie Pirates received an RC rating because it featured a scene where animated skeletons duel. That, it seems, is something Australian citizens can’t stomach – at least according to Conroy and his ilk.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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