(Originally posted at Crikey!).

The Government's nicely-timed announcement last week that they will proceed next year with their Internet censorship scheme has not only drawn widespread ire in Australia but has continued to raise eyebrows overseas. The filter has been covered around the world from the BBC to news outlets in Poland, Pakistan and even China. Unfortunately, it's not a good look - despite any nuances the policy might have, we're gaining a reputation as the Iran of the South Pacific.

This has culminated with no less an organisation than Reporters Without Borders, a global watchdog of press freedom, writing to the Prime Minister urging him to abandon the scheme. Given that one normally encounters RWB in association with jailed reporters and post-coup news blackouts this development should be alarming to anyone concerned with our image as an open democracy in the world.

The letter, signed by RWB Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard, spelled out the organisation's disquiet with the broad criteria and uncertain goals of the censorship plan. In particular, they felt the lack of judicial oversight was a key problem:

"Firstly, the decision to block access to an 'inappropriate' website would be taken not by a judge but by a government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Such a procedure, without a court decision, does not satisfy the requirements of the rule of law. The ACMA classifies content secretly, compiling a website blacklist by means of unilateral and arbitrary administrative decision-making. Other procedures are being considered but none of them would involve a judge."

The letter also expresses concern at the vagueness of the filtering criteria, worrying that "subjects such as abortion, anorexia, aborigines and legislation on the sale of marijuana would all risk being filtered, as would media reports on these subjects." Julliard notes the inherent unreliability of filtering and cites the leaked ACMA blacklist of earlier in the year as an example of how legitimate material can find its way onto a blacklist.

The Minister's earlier attempts to deflect criticism by implying filter opponents were all card-carrying members of the Child Pornography Apologists League continue to backfire, with the letter noting that "a real national debate is needed on this subject but your communications minister, Stephen Conroy, made such a debate very difficult by branding his critics as supporters of child pornography. An opportunity was lost for stimulating a constructive exchange of ideas."

The rest of the world is watching and worrying because of the precedent this sets. If a democracy such as Australia can implement a program such as this in full view of the electorate, where might be next? What hope remains for those countries that do not have our transparent system of government? Citizens of other countries can already sense that their own governments will gleefully point to Australia's filter when proposing their own clampdown. While nobody would say that Stephen Conroy set out to be at the vanguard of a new wave of global censorship, the consternation this program is causing should demonstrate both our esteem overseas and how easy it would be to damage.

7 comments

  1. Like many people, I am also concerned about the Internet censorship scheme, from the point of view that it simply won't work, it will slow the internet down, and that much better alternatives are available, right now.

    But I am especially alarmed at an act of censorship that occured last Friday (18 Dec 2009), where the lessee of the domain name stephenconroy.com.au had this domain robbed from him in broad daylight. I am alarmed that auDA (the main domain registry for Australia) gave only three hours notice before shutting the domain down. I am alarmed that this happened even when no laws appear to have been broken. I am alarmed that auDA do not recognise the right of the lessee to obtain representation: even the Australian Tax Office respects the rights of taxpayers to be represented.

    I understand that auDA has to manage competing claims for a domain name, but this is not the case here. It smells very strongly that the Government simply did not like what was being said, and (whether by lodging a spurious competing claim for that domain, or otherwise), had the domain shut down.

    This is to say, it is a blatant case of Government censorship, happening right now, without involvement of a court of law.

    Senator Conroy, I believe in the rule of law, and have respect for due process. Do you?

    Comment by Nick Bishop on 22 December 2009 at 22:34
  2. This suggestion of internet filtering is appalling! I am a father of two boys (10 and 8) and have ensured they have absolutely no home internet access to any inappropriate content. These controls are far more rigorous than the simplistic (and easily circumvented) filters provided by the Federal government that they expressly recommended for home use. I suspect Minister Conroy's new proposal is an implicit admission these highly promoted filters don't work.

    However, why should I (a 50 year old, well-educated man) be denied free access to opinions, information and content that are deemed inappropriate by either a Minister that I can never meet, or an invisible "public servant" with whom I can never argue my case for access?

    I strongly feel a representative democracy should not imply all of my rights and obligations should be passed to a parliamentarian's (or senator's) whim to decide on my behalf (without any further consultation). Rememember, it is compulsory for me to vote for a representative, irrespective of me agreeing with the policies of any of the candidates. Further, the elected member can then (and often does) claim he/she has a mandate for policy implementation of little known (or even previously unannounced) "policies" merely on the basis on being voted as an electorate's least unpopular candidate.

    When are politicians going to finally recognise that many people are both entitled and capable of deciding many things for themselves?

    Comment by Phillip on 23 December 2009 at 06:30
  3. It's a tragedy that the 21st Century we have socially conservative bone-heads at the helm of government in Australia who are moving to censor freedom of expression in this way.

    I suppose it is as much a tragedy that as citizens, the majority of us sit silently when these kinds of abuses of power in government or in boardrooms take place, we should gather together and make our voices heard... but we are too apathetic, and even when we are not (poll of over 4,000 in The Age voted "No" when asked whether Conroy should censor the internet) we are ignored.

    Comment by sean joshua on 5 January 2010 at 12:54
  4. The link to the letter is broken. This is the actual link:
    http://www.rsf.org/spip.php?page=article&id_a...

    Comment by Kieran on 7 January 2010 at 08:18
  5. The biggest problem with any censorship proposal are the morally corrupt special interest organisations such as The Australian Christian Lobby who wish to have the government serve their own personal agenda.

    Comment by Dan on 12 January 2010 at 02:01
  6. When are politicians going to finally recognise that many people are both entitled and capable of deciding many things for themselves?

    When people are no longer dependant upon authority figures big brother big sister big daddy big muma ect

    Comment by bill on 26 January 2010 at 07:07
  7. @bill
    Politicians already know this but what incentive do they have to give up their power? If you can control the speech you have absolute power, it is allot for them to simply give up.

    Comment by Dan on 26 January 2010 at 08:17