This post is written by Michael Meloni, from Somebody Think of the Children, for our series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA’s 2010 Fundraising Campaign …
When I was fifteen some friends and I wrote an e-zine about school and what was happening around town. It was lowbrow satire and only twelve of us read it, but we were pleased to be sharing our ideas. Here we were, in a small town with not much else to do but cause trouble, creating something.
The Internet was changing the way my friends and I communicated. We were having conversations that weren't localised between a set of people at one given time or place. We were exchanging laughs across the span of a week or even months when somebody read a copy long after it was published.
Little did I know this very means of open communication was under threat, seen by governments as a scary film or book that could be easily edited (or deleted) rather than as conversation.
A year earlier I had become an instant fan of Silence of the Lambs after renting it from the local video shop. Despite being a squeamish kid, I was beginning to understand movies weren't real and the blood was just tomato sauce. Standing in front of the VHS lined shelves, I debated with myself about whether I was really brave enough to watch it. I'd heard it was terrifying but I was interested in film making and couldn't resist watching one of the greats. Part of me knew I was ready and I was right; I watched it, enjoyed it and understood why it was so highly regarded.
On the opening day of its sequel, Hannibal, I dragged mum along to the cinema for the first session because none of my friends were fans and it would ease any concerns she had about me seeing it by myself. It was classified MA15+ but not for long. A ludicrous scene where Anthony Hopkins removes the top of Ray Liotta's skull to cook part of his brain stirred up Australia. Within a week of opening the Queensland Attorney General, Judy Spence, requested the rating be reviewed and subsequently Hannibal was reclassified R18+. Only adults could see it.
It was here that I realised that mum and I weren't the only people deciding what I was permitted to watch and read. No kid is a stranger to be being told what they can and cannot do; it's part of growing up. However, on the verge of adulthood I struggled with the concept of another party deciding what fiction and fact was appropriate for me. I knew what was right and wrong, legal and illegal, but this was a story I had read in a book borrowed from school and was now not meant to have seen on the big screen. Talk about an eye-opener.
As a family our only exposure to classification existed when we read the labels on the front of video jackets or the warnings before television movies. I was sent to bed many times as a child after that deep, drone-like voice uttered 'The following film contains violence and is suitable for mature audiences only'. When I wanted to see Hannibal, even as teenager, I had to make a case.
It's this conversation between parent and child that is missing when we look to technology such as ISP filtering as a solution to keeping children safe on the Internet. Where along the way did we forget that the best way to protect children online is the same as we do off-line; by talking to them. Discussing Internet safety with them is just as important as discussing road safety, pool safety, sex and stranger danger. And it's parents, family-friends, community leaders and teachers who are best placed to have 'the talk'.
Remember the sit-down most of us had with our parents before we went to our first party in high school. They knew there would be alcohol, potentially worse, but by talking to us about it beforehand they were instilling trust and responsibility. The Internet is no different.
We are now part of a global village and we are having global conversations, although not always ones appropriate for all ages. It's ultimately why a one-size-fits-all ISP filter is a poor substitute for good education. Even PC filters with their faults still remain a far better option for families because access can be tailored to individual users. While the Australian Government may have good intentions introducing mandatory ISP filtering, they'll probably do more harm by giving parents a false sense of security. Their filtering policy will do little if anything to make the Internet safer for children and that leaves me wondering what's the point?
It's been over 10 years since I wrote that e-zine and I'm still creating content online. Somebody Think of the Children has reached an audience far bigger than that zine ever could. I like to think every sentence I write is a conversation with my readers and it's organisations like Electronic Frontiers Australia that help us little guys keep doing so. It's their hard work and effort that links our voice with the policy makers and media. If you take a moment to think about how you communicate online and how important it is to you, I believe you'll understand why it's crucial we support EFA in their fight to protect and promote civil liberties in Australia.