EFA's web hosting provider was today the recipient of a Link Deletion notice from ACMA for an article on our web site ironically entitled "Net censorship already having a chilling effect". The original article included a link to a page at abortiontv.com that includes graphic images and was previously added to ACMA's blacklist for being "R-18+"-level material. (For more information on the ACMA net censorship system, see here and here.)
There are many reasons why this should alarm Australian net users. Most significantly, the link was part of a political discussion about the merits of the existing and future Internet censorship policies. The link was offered as a demonstration of the sorts of controversial content that could and would be included in any such proposal. No "offensive" material was included on our site itself. Nevertheless, we were forced to remove the link on pain of severe penalties.
To be clear, EFA published only a link to a page that is hosted overseas and is on ACMA's prohibited list. Viewing the potentially R-rated page itself is not in any way illegal, and no system is yet in place to enforce the blocking of such web pages. One may well wonder why a link to a legally viewable page should draw the threat of legal sanction while the content itself remains visible. Because the link was on a web page hosted in Australia, the hosting provider - not EFA ourselves, who have more control over the content - falls under Australian legal jurisdiction and could be so served. What this accomplishes is uncertain.
This system, which costs Australian taxpayers millions each year, is clearly unworkable. Because the content is hosted overseas, it remains untouched by ACMA's directives. Any links or commentary on prohibited content can be protected by the simple expedient of posting it on a web site hosted overseas. No letters from the Australian media regulator, issued months after complaints are filed, will reduce the availability of such material. If a link to a prohibited page is not allowed, what about a link to a link? At what number of hops does a hyperlink become acceptable?
This is a textbook case that demonstrates that there is no sharp dividing line between "political" speech and other content. At the edges of public policy are issues which will inflame passions and lead to images, video and words that are offensive to many people. Trying to stamp these out, especially on the Internet, not only diminishes our democracy but is pointless and paternalistic to boot.
On the Internet, a discussion about some information is often barely distinguishable from the information itself. The current ACMA censorship regime accomplishes little apart from achieving a Howard-era political objective, and makes it clear how far behind the curve political thinking is when it comes to the technical realities of the Internet. We now seem set to move to a new stage where the perceived shortcomings of the current system are to be remedied by legislation making the blocking of overseas content mandatory. It goes without saying that such a block will be easily circumvented by those with the motivation, and material of genuine political interest will find a way to proliferate despite the ban. It is average Australians who will be left wondering what they should and should not be viewing, and not know what controversial material has been deemed unacceptable by the censors.
With fines of up to $11,000 per day threatened against our hosting provider, we have little choice but to comply with ACMA's directive. However, we are investigating an appeal of the order on the grounds that it stifles a legitimate political discussion on the merits of the Government's internet censorship policies.
Full text of the LDN here.