This guest post is written by Mark Bahnisch from Lavartus Prodeo for our series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA’s 2010 Fundraising Campaign

There are a range of good arguments against the Rudd government's internet filter, some emphasised for persuasive or tactical reasons, some reflective of deeply held political and political positions. Among the latter, liberal and libertarian arguments tend to dominate. This is not necessarily to say that those advancing such arguments (which we might usefully summarise under the slogan 'information wants to be free') are liberals or libertarians in a consistently ideological sense, or on the political right. It's more that the deep logic of the internet's history produces an argument in terms of freedom, and that view seems natural to those who are passionate about the online world. In this article, I want to present a somewhat more sociological argument, and one that seeks to build on an alternative (though, in part, complementary) set of assumptions drawn from left and progressive thought and tradition.

In so doing, the target at which I want to aim is not the internet filter itself, or Stephen Conroy himself. To my mind, the personalisation of the debate has not been a helpful aspect of the campaign against the filter proposal. What I think is useful and important to understand is the underlying cause of the government's move, which casts the argument around freedom in something of a different light.

What is at issue here is the desire to govern the private choices of individuals, a desire which has had its apogee in the communitarian aspects of New Labour governance in the United Kingdom. To adapt a judgement made by The Economist, thirteen years of New Labour government has seen the state grow, personal freedom greatly diminish, but the underlying social patterns of inequality little disturbed. The urge to shape and dictate private choices has been growing among Labor governments in Australia, with the long lived Bob Carr style state regimes leading the vanguard. Mark Latham tempered the communitarian rhetoric to a high flame during his leadership, and despite his repudiation by the ALP, the Rudd government has seemingly adopted a similar governing mentality, albeit at more of a simmer.

The causes of the desire to govern the soul are multiple, though interconnected and interwoven.

It's no coincidence that an increasing drive to interfere with private decisions and choices accompanied the election of the first generation of centre-left governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of the End of History. The ideological climate where social democrats lost any sense of the capacity to transform, and the desirability of transforming economic and social relations lent itself to a statism without long term purpose, a statism that manifests itself in interventions to transform private lives rather than to transform national and global society. Stripped of the power, and the will, to restructure economic life so as to negate deeply structural inequalities in a globalised world, purpose and the will to do good manifests itself into a micro-level of intervention; what Michel Foucault called 'biopolitics' - a politics of governing the individual body and soul.

Reflected through the prism of the constant campaign, the spectacle of the symbol in politics, and the 24/7 media cycle, 'bite-sized' policies have the capacity to substitute for social change over the long term and to feed the drumbeat of moral panic sounded on a repetitive and moment by moment time scale.

Secondly, in a risk society, individuals are less trusted to make choices for themselves, governed by their desires, their use of private reason, and their consciences. The sub-politics of risk, to invoke the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, concerns itself with the downside of modernity and complexity - the costs of the aggregation of private decisions to public finances and purposes. In areas like health, child development, and many others, the costs of perceived negative choices are transferred to a public purse unable to deal with them, and in a neo-liberal culture, the production of a docile and compliant workforce is key both to the legitimation of governance in a chaotic environment and to the reproduction of late capitalist patterns of work, consumption and distribution.

Thirdly, the micro-government of the individual is a key point of contestation at the site where democratisation and authority clash. An increasing climate of openness from the 1960s onwards, and the democratisation of culture among whose effects is a resistance to assertions of authority, later supplemented by the growth of populisms both right and left combined to render the notion that policy is an effect of expertise shaky. 'Evidence-based policy' is something of a backlash. With politics denuded of big picture ideological conflicts, the void is filled with hordes of experts, who with the best will in the world, think that they know what's good for us. Labor governments, stripped of any real transformational purpose, obsessed with symbolic campaigning and feeding the media beast, and concerned about the governance of risk, seize upon (and cherry pick) crumbs from the table of thinktank, private and public research expertise.

So, then, the internet filter is part of a bigger picture. It's one more item, among the alcopops tax, the national testing regime in schools, and many others, of a form of governmental mentality which seeks to shape, or to dictate, choices to citizens, who are presumed to be unable to discern their own best interests. Evidence, research and policy step in, and electoral advantage is sought through the intertwined machine of political communication and media dissemination.

Yet, there is another left tradition.

That is the tradition embodied in movements for popular education from the 19th century onwards, in the habits of auto-didacticism of early trade unionists and activists, of the respect for reason and informed conscience and judgement imparted to English speaking socialisms and Labourism from the dissent of chapel and the world of workplace dispute and argument. This tradition is one of the cultivation of the capacities of all citizens to apply reason to human affairs, to make conscientiously good decisions in their private lives through collective learning and civic conversation, for opportunity to be opened up rather than to be circumscribed.

This fundamentally progressive attitude and set of dispositions seeks to expand the capabilities of ordinary folk and to enable and facilitate citizens' desires for autonomy, self-government and collective government of communal and state institutions.

It's part of a sweeping movement of democratisation, which popped up in another context at the height of the administered society in the 1950s and 1960s, in a desire for participatory decision-making and for individuals together to question the force of ingrained social norms. It's part of an activist culture manifested in social movements such as feminism and other liberatory and transformational currents. At its heart, it represents a fundamental optimism, a philosophical anthropology foundational to left politics (and to liberalism, too) which holds that humans are thinking beings able to be trusted with choice, and whose choices deserve a basic level of respect.

The internet, as I alluded to at the outset, is part of that secular movement towards the democratisation of social relations; and of knowledge. It's precisely because the internet affords so much promise for those who wish to decide their destinies in common, to learn, to form an informed judgement and habit of thought that its freedom from state interference is so important at the level of principle. I'm not so interested in the particulars of the reasons advanced by the Rudd government for this latest instance of the desire to micro-manage individual choices. I'm much more interested in opposing, in principle, anything that partakes in the disrespect for the capacities of individual citizens to decide severally and collectively how best to regulate their own lives. That's a principle, in my view, that from a left and progressive position, is well worth fighting for.

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64 comments

  1. Wow, I didn't know there were so many believers of the Lord out there. I can feel the Holy Spirit coursing through each of you. And I think if we band together we can get this country back on track. I mean, there's a lot of work to be done. There are so many websites out there claiming we all evolved from monkeys. I don't want my kids or anybody else's kids or even adults viewing such material. This so called theory of evolution is not "refused classification". This is an area our otherwise-exemplary Senator Conroy has failed us in. But I have faith in the man, that we can work together to ensure such blasphemous theories are unseen by Australian eyes.

    Comment by Fred on 19 April 2010 at 02:28
  2. @ Elegy

    "Then you must already know that the censorware doesn't work."

    Sure it works. We just have to chuck trillions of dollars at it and neuter the benefits of the internet. Nobody needs VPN access, proxy servers, alternate DNS servers, or any traffic from outside of Australia. In fact, just the government's website will provide plenty of entertainment for the whole family.

    Seriously though, if even China's firewall is trivial to circumvent with roughly 30 000 people actively censoring content, ours doesn't have a shot in hell of being effective.

    Comment by Ben on 19 April 2010 at 02:46
  3. @ (security) Guy

    Hi, long time no hear. Your arguments rarely change and you ignore the fact that it is EASY to find the hosting company and contact them. Germany has already proven this and they gave up their ISP filtering policy because of this fact. Why did you bring up registrars when Ben was clearly talking of hosting companies. Oh thats right confuse then argue a different situation, I see things have not changed.

    BTW I simply do not believe you work in any ISP, let alone the technical area of one. I will let you reveal your interests honestly.

    Comment by oncelabour on 19 April 2010 at 09:57
  4. All of you people need to repent. When the time of judgment is upon us, the Lord will know who among you stood with righteousness and who among you stood against Stephen Conroy and his plans to enforce a little morality to the vice-filled medium known as the internet.

    Comment by In His name on 20 April 2010 at 03:54
  5. @oncelabor

    Ben brought up shutting down domains so I brought up registrars. You can't really do one without the other.

    I'm not arguing - I'm just providing my opinion. I've worked in the ISP industry for 15 years and that has informed my opinion. Presumably you guys have relevant experience in the area - you know, perhaps you're clinical psychiatrists that work with pedophiles, or children that have been abused or you've worked in law enforcement, or you've worked in the regulatory area of large ISPs.

    As I said, I think we'll agree to disagree. The main points I wanted to get across are these:

    - ISPs make money from internet censorship under the existing self-regulatory scheme by charging thousands of dollars to test and 'accredit' dodgy software filters - do you think this is appropriate?

    - ISPs currently block access to known malware sites, why not child sex abuse sites?

    - This whole issue would not have arisen if AU ISPs had taken on some social responsibility by voluntarily by blocking access to child sexual abuse sites on the web, just as has been done in the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, NZ and throughout Scandinavia (with the oversight and approval of police). I happen to think that the ISP industries in these countries are more socially responsible than ours but I appreciate your right to disagree.

    Comment by Guy on 20 April 2010 at 05:18
  6. "- ISPs currently block access to known malware sites, why not child sex abuse sites?"

    Because the mere fact that Conroy wants to block ALL RC CONTENT, and not just real kiddie porn, is pretty eveident that even if Aussie ISP's had blocked real child abuse sites, it wouldn't have been enough.

    Comment by Noone_Special on 20 April 2010 at 05:50
  7. @ Guy

    "ISPs make money from internet censorship under the existing self-regulatory scheme by charging thousands of dollars to test and 'accredit' dodgy software filters - do you think this is appropriate?"

    Sure, exactly just like vendors such as Watchdog scream child porn at the top of their lungs and shame ISPs into purchasing their products, which are expensive and don't work.

    Our ISPs aren't stupid, and know that implementing a censorship system which anyone can bypass in around 10 seconds is a waste of time and money. But clearly that's not an issue for you, because you keep promoting censorware which any child, paedophile or law abiding adult could bypass, again, in around 10 seconds. In fact, given about 2 minutes of training, anyone could learn to bypass them.

    No matter how much anyone sugar coats these systems, unless and until they can't be circumvented by any one of the hundreds of widely known techniques, we'd be wasting valuable millions of dollars and giving it to censorware vendors for snake oil.

    The fact that you keep promoting the child porn angle shows that you can't sell the government's proposal without misrepresenting it.

    Comment by Ben on 20 April 2010 at 06:58
  8. @Ben
    I'm not selling the Govt's proposal. I've already said it's too broad.

    I'm saying that AU ISPs should have voluntarily introduced network level filtering of known child sexual abuse sites years ago - just like ISP industries in the USA, the UK, Canada and throughout Scandinavia have. You think AU ISPs are doing the right thing by refusing to spend any $ on implementing this measure and you think that police and ISPs in the coutries i've mentioned are 'stupid'. No doubt you're eminently qualified to make this call. I think that police and ISPs in those countries are acting in a socially responsible and civil manner....so we'll agree to disagree.

    ps. you might question the words that Nark Mewton jerks off into your mouth before you simply regurgitate them....you seem smarter than that.

    Comment by Guy on 20 April 2010 at 07:16
  9. @ Guy

    The police blacklist certain content (in some countries) because the politicians/law tell them to do it. As I've said, I am yet to see any of these police organisations actually come out and say that blacklisting content is actually effective in stopping people accessing any blacklisted material. ACMA knows that blacklisting prohibited content is required by law, but that doesn't mean it's effective.

    "ps. you might question the words that Nark Mewton jerks off into your mouth before you simply regurgitate them....you seem smarter than that."

    Yet you don't dispute the words. Interesting.

    Comment by Ben on 20 April 2010 at 07:35
  10. @Ben "Yet you don't dispute the words"

    Neither did you Ben ;)

    Comment by Des on 20 April 2010 at 07:53
  11. @ (security) Guy

    quote
    "Ben brought up shutting down domains so I brought up registrars. You can't really do one without the other."

    You are right he did, I am apologise. I was use to his other posts elsewhere where he simply talks of shutting down the web pages/site, by calling the hosting company.

    quote
    "- ISPs make money from internet censorship under the existing self-regulatory scheme by charging thousands of dollars to test and 'accredit' dodgy software filters - do you think this is appropriate?"

    Ummm no. Enex currently has the contract to test IIA accredited (PC) filters. You would have to provide a specific reference to an ISP that has the credentials to certify (not accredit) filtering software. Thats why IIA have a contract with ENEX for that purpose. IE ISPs pay money to get filtering solutions certified.

    quote
    "- ISPs currently block access to known malware sites, why not child sex abuse sites?"

    Again you need to provide sources and/or references for this as no ISP bar one in Australia I know of does this

    In Australia the only ISP that does this is WebShield and maybe iPrimus under their filtering scheme if that is currently available.

    quote
    "- This whole issue would not have arisen if AU ISPs had taken on some social responsibility by voluntarily by blocking access to child sexual abuse sites on the web, just as has been done in the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, NZ and throughout Scandinavia (with the oversight and approval of police). I happen to think that the ISP industries in these countries are more socially responsible than ours but I appreciate your right to disagree."

    Ummm USA does not, and that is where one AG over there has tried but failed, they tried to enact law for that, but it failed because it could not be made specific enough. Guess you will not find references to any apart from a religious ISP, oh wait even they say it is better for their customers to use a PC based filter as that can filter according to their faith better than one decided by them which may not suit every customer.

    ummm NZ only did it (has it actually passed trial stage yet, you should know) because of the government telling them to.

    ummm France is about to do it because of the government but currently does not for most ISPs Reference to show all ISPs are doing it (not just ones like WebShield

    Well UK were told do it or we legislate, so most did but ISPs servicing 5% of the population do not. And since they are small ISPs the actual number of ISPs is much more than 5% of the total ISPs

    As to the others I am too tired to check up, but going on your track record of accurate information, lets just say I DISAGREE with you and your inaccurate information

    And AU. Many ISPs provide a filtering solution for CSA and other sites to their customers. They chose (except WebShield) to provide PC filters for customers who wish it. It is called optional filtering and like the UK and other countries one can choose a ISP that filters or one that does not, OR they can choose to PC filter or not.

    The biggest problem with filtering "Known Child Abuse Sites" is that it has been shown by Germany recently that it is far more effective to contact the hosting company and get the content removed. They showed, by using a leaked list of anothers country that they could get the suss (not necessarily CSA) content removed within 24 hours. That is so much more effective and removes it from the Web for every country. Saves on hardware and requires one part time person for the whole world. It may take many people to come across any sites (if any real CSA sites), but only one person to actually get on the phone and call the hosting company. Oh then a second call to the police to get international cooperation and get the sickos arrested.

    Why oh why seek a blocking system instead of removal and arrest. Only those with a vested interest push blocking over arrests and removal. Others may follow unfortunately. Which are you?

    Comment by oncelabour on 20 April 2010 at 08:11
  12. @ Des

    "Neither did you Ben ;)"

    I make no apologies for "regurgitating" sensible arguments :-)

    Comment by Ben on 20 April 2010 at 08:34
  13. Comment #60 -April 19, 2010 @ 9:53 pm was not posted by me, neither did it originate from my computer.

    I have a long standing policy of not attacking other posters with bickering.
    I also wouldn't have bothered making such a comment as I rather lament the whole discussion being directed away from the question of what can be done about stopping the filter being passed into law, rather than to discussing theories about its pros and cons.

    The filter is an abomination to freedom of communication and deserves to be challenged as such. I had hoped the EFA was up to discussing that, with a view to actively (but lawfully) dissenting to Conroy's bill.

    Comment by Des on 20 April 2010 at 09:39
  14. All of you intellectual elitists make me laugh. Have you ever considered taking time out from your secular decadence to reach out to the Lord and ask him what he wants for the internet? When I got on my knees and spoke with him, God told me that Stephen Conroy was like a prophet. Go on, mock me and Senator Conroy if you will. All prophets and their followers were ridiculed in their time. But people like Mr. Conroy are going to lead a revolution that takes us back to Biblical values and it will start with this internet filter. And I and all people of morals will gladly follow him. You cannot stop the will of the Lord with your facts.

    Comment by In His name on 20 April 2010 at 14:52