It's when they stop talking about you, that's when you've got to worry. Or so the old saying goes. Perhaps, then, we at Electronic Frontiers Australia should be gratified that filter-backers such as Clive Hamilton still hold up EFA as the epitome of "extreme cyber-libertarianism", a gang of internet anarchists who don't care what happens to children as long as Government keeps its hands off our Internet.
While we do appreciate the mention, as ever, it's a bit dismaying that such misrepresentations still find their way into print. EFA's objections to filter are well known; it's an ill-defined policy mess, it won't deliver for kids, it won't aid law-enforcement, it's overly secretive, and technical problems abound. In fact, just about the only argument we haven't made is that filtering is a bad idea from a purely libertarian perspective.
There's certainly room to disagree with EFA's position, but the debate has to occur around the real issues raised by ourselves and others. The difference between a civil liberties group and a den of libertarians is clearly too subtle for some, but is nonetheless important. EFA is concerned, as should anyone be, that the government is taking a new censorship power for itself that is opaque and not subject to review. Even Hamilton wrote, in the same piece yesterday, that "we also need to consider the risks of creeping erosion of free speech, a concern heightened by the Government’s failure to be wholly transparent about its plans." We couldn't agree more! Where censorship is to be expanded, it's not "extreme" to expect a coherent policy explaining why it's necessary.
Let's humour our critics for a moment and don the cyber-libertarian hat. Are there also good reasons here to oppose filtering? There are of course many amongst EFA and those sympathetic to its work that do admire and cherish the open, anarchic free-wheeling nature of the Internet. It's hard to deny this is part of what makes the net such an exciting and valuable medium for culture and entrepreneurship. Heavy-handed regulation could, in theory, damage this and make the Internet less useful for everyone.
On the other hand, the Government clearly has the right to legislate on content and networks in Australia. There could be many cases when government regulation and intervention could be positive for the net - bolstering our network capacity and ensuring fair competition in the market for network services come to mind. The outlawing of images online that depict actual child abuse is a good example of a content law that few would oppose, and is one that is actually enforceable and is gaining convictions. It would seem silly, then, to simply oppose all internet regulation as a matter of principle.
Hamilton claims that the Internet belongs to all of us, not just the cyber-libertarians. And he's right. The Internet is a global phenomenon, and anyone can partake in its culture by adding or consuming content. Libertarians do not control the Internet, or set its agenda, any more than mainstream Australians, anti-porn crusaders, or the North Korean government. Until this fundamental truth is accepted, no realistic policy for dealing with the net and its risks for children is possible.
In summary: although it seems commonsensical that less regulation is in general to be preferred, any policy has to be examined on its own merits. When it comes to the Internet, it's a moot point. The Internet just isn't amenable to classification or regulation by the Australian Government.
Fortunately, we do have options for protecting kids. Home-based filters, supervision and education for children and parents are the place to start. We will never be able to shield our kids from all the world's dangers. Some see this as too difficult, and want Government to take care of it at the ISP level. Most of us can accept this and deal with it.
As for this latest salvo by Clive Hamilton, it's not the first time he's made such claims and been debunked, too. His willingness to keep up the same line, targeted at EFA especially, is starting to smack of a certain intellectual laziness. Attacking a straw man is easier than addressing real concerns. But it is encouraging that filter proponents are so unable to address the real problems that they need such transparent straw men to bolster their claims.
A version of this piece appeared in Crikey.