Net censorship already having a chilling effect

Before the Government’s mandatory filter is even in place, the potential chilling effect of even the current net censorship regime was felt today when Whirlpool’s hosting provider received a take-down notice from ACMA because of a page that links to a another site on the current ACMA blacklist. Given the steep penalties, up to $11,000 per day, it’s hard to fault the host and Whirlpool for taking this seriously and complying.

It may come as a surprise to a few that Australia’s internet is already censored like this. Under the current scheme, when ACMA receives a complaint about a website, they determine whether it should be prohibited by subjecting it to analysis under the Classification Board’s classification regime. Material that would be refused classification, rated X-18+, or rated R-18+ (when not age-protected) is added to a blacklist provided to filter vendors. When offending material is hosted in Australia, however, ACMA has the power to compel the site or its hosts to remove the offending pages. More information on the current blacklist can be found in EFA’s summary.

Of course, the current regime turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg as the system expands and we move into the era of mandatory filtering conducted by ISPs against all Australian internet users.

The page linked to on Whirlpool, which can be found [REDACTED. The original title of the page was “AbortionTV Pictures #6”, and can presumably be found using major search engines.] (warning: graphic content) is itself controversial, as it is from an anti-abortion web site. This demonstrates not only that the blacklist targets a wider range of material than child abuse (where the Minister’s rhetoric has been focused) but also that the lines between art, obscenity and political speech are not as bright and clear as politicians would have us imagine. The initial complaint that caused the site to be blacklisted was made by a Whirlpool user, and discussion there was clearly within a political context – a discussion of censorship itself. Because of the high penalties, web and forum hosts are going to rush to comply even when they might have a case that the material was incorrectly classified, taken out of context, or was merely a link and does not constitute prohibited material. Viewing or possession RC content is not in itself illegal unless the content falls afoul of some other statute, such as those governing child-abuse material.

Despite the Minster’s (ridiculous) assertions that he means well and we should take it on faith that the filter will be effective and benign, this latest episode demonstrates how serious run-ins with the censors can be, that it does not only happen to purveyors of the ‘filth’ politicians rail against. These sorts of incidents will multiply as mandatory filtering is introduced, more controversial content is prohibited, and mirroring, linking and circumvention become common.

Hopefully ACMA’s heavy-handed action will also demonstrate the futility of censoring a medium where web pages spring up by the thousands every second and information is copied at a furious pace.

Edit 05 May 2009: In compliance with a take-down notice issued by ACMA, EFA has removed the link to AbortionTV in this post.