Chair, Electronic Frontiers Australia
Speech given at Perth anti-censorship protest, May 28, 1999.
For some, the issue is free speech - not freedom to do illegal things, but the freedom to download and post to the Net anything that is legal in other media.
Every time a shonky proxy filter blocks a web page wrongly, it is a real offence to freedom of expression. When EFA showed that the Clairview filter blocked all the user pages on AOL, Geocities and Ozemail (not to mention iiNet!) after a few hours websurfing, it illustrated the huge collateral damage that filters can cause to businesses and users.
To others, the Net's a precious resource - the world's finest library collection. They don't want their ability to get up to date information to be limited by clumsy filters and degraded download speeds. Keyword filters block any number of everyday words, and in trying to block anything vaguely sexual or racist the filters can remove great hunks of the Net. Domain blockers can shut out whole universities or ISPs because of one page - which may in turn have been misdiagnosed or changed. Those doing their degrees and diplomas via the Internet don't want their career disrupted by clumsy Internet censorship.
Parents are vulnerable to this sort of misdirected Government censorship efforts. Under the Bill, children will be more at risk as content moves from local regulation to offshore hosts. Overseas sites blend R-rated, X-rated and illegal content according to their local laws, not Australian community standards. Those "adult" sites that have hitherto operated in Australia in meticulous compliance with local censorship rules have no incentive to comply with the new laws, and may go "underground", again putting children at risk to exposure to more dangerous material.
Parents want Government resources applied to proper law enforcement - tracking down paedophiles and illegal sites with adequate police resources. Parents want Government help in sponsoring Internet education and search engine technology to help parents understand and control their children's use of the Internet.
But remember that the "Save The Children"(tm) rhetoric coming from Government is essentially nonsense. Most Internet users are adults, and most adult content is screened against children via adult verification checks or credit card authorisation. Illegal content is extremely hard to find on the Net, mostly because the criminal distribution of illegal material is a secretive affair.
Many find the Net a means of having a voice for the first time, or a way to communicate without the prejudice of first impressions. Others are separated by distance from stores and banks, or want to speak with their fellow hobbyists. For these people, a degraded and crippled Internet service is more than an inconvenience - it's a blow to the way they want to live their lives.
Political purists may note the Government's cynical campaign against pornography is suddenly a priority just at the same time it needs Senator Harradine's vote on vital legislation - including the part-sale of Telstra. In the same week the Canadian Government decided against Internet censorship, the Federal Government has presented this contentious, party-political legislation as if it were the only answer to the only problem. While street kids sleep under bridges and education is being rationalised, it's hard to see why the Government thinks that paying public servants to look at porn is a worthwhile use of taxpayers' money.
Minorities know that censorship is very much a matter of demographics. Minority viewpoints or lifestyles are at risk of widespread censorship, perhaps hundreds of web sites wiped out with a single keyword. Because of the prurience of the list of banned words, a block on "breast" also blocks "breast cancer" and "breast feeding". Unacceptable collateral damage to harm-minimisation and health education sites are especially vulnerable. Perhaps the ageing male members of the Senate might consider the results of an Australian Internet filtered against prostate disease information.
The economic arguments are compelling - higher bandwidth costs as content moves offshore; high compliance costs on ISPs in terms of extra staff, big Ciscos, $25k filter services and govt fees; small ISPs leaving the market to the big players - all bad news for small business and consumers.
Every ISP organisation and every hardware vendor knows that the technical ability of a computer to rate, in context, Internet material from all ports and all sources is an impossible dream. Censorship is a human value-judgement, and a machine can't be expected to rate content in real time. Blocklists are easily avoided, and offshore hosting is easy to organise. "The Internet treats censorship like damage, and routes around it". That is why every other democratic country has come to realise that the degree of policing necessary to stop people accessing the global Internet requires too high a price in police resources and at too high a cost to civil liberties. Businesses cannot operate e-commerce in a road-blocked Internet, and bandwidth is too scarce a resource to waste on filtering.
Finally there's The Big Picture - the next millenium is a wired future, with economic activity and social value reliant on participation in the global information economy. If companies won't locate in Australia because of eccentric local censorship laws, or content hosting ceases to be an Australian growth industry, or indeed the best and the brightest new talent goes overseas to work in an environment unencumbered by red tape - then Australia becomes a country handicapped by "technofear" and our future international relevance is at risk.
Many people would like to see /something/ unobtainable on the Internet, and as the highly-successful war against child pornography has established, co-operative international policing brings cyberspace down to earth very quickly. It is quite possible that other forms of content may , by international agreement, be made illegal all over the world - and thus the perpetrators will be sought out and prosecuted wherever they are.
It's not defeatism to say that filters won't work, and that ISPs can't be expected to screen content. It's the unpalatable truth. A sensible Government would put money towards greater user education and promoting community standards on the Internet by promoting community participation online. Parents and educators face graver fears than pornography, and have a right to Government action than will genuinely reduce the risk to children and genuinely promote the national interest.
It's a sign of the maturity of countries, in the past and in the future, as to how they cope with globalization. The Internet is an international medium, outside the control or grasp of any Australian Government - and Australian society must learn to cope with all the advantages and disadvantages of that. Putting speed humps and barriers on the local Internet industry merely invites the world to detour around Australia.