I’m afraid you’re going to hear a lot about some pretty unpleasant subjects this year. Among them will be bestiality, incest, child abuse, and occasionally even “snuff films”. The person you are most likely to hear talking about these things is Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy, as he is out defending the Rudd Government’s controversial decision to legislate mandatory Internet censorship in 2010.
I don’t blame him for talking about these things, because we all agree they’re bad. Blocking something universally agreed to be bad probably seems like a pretty uncontroversial policy. Naturally, nobody is actually arguing in favour of bestiality, incest or child pornography, the possession of which is a serious criminal offence. But by mentioning these things, you can try and reframe the debate – not whether the Government has identified a real need for secret new censorship powers, but whether it should be possible to view incest movies or not. (If that was the debate, then opponents of the filters would have to be a bunch of creeps, and who cares what a bunch of creeps have to say?)
But here’s the thing. When you throw a net around something, to be sure you’ve gotten it all you need to make sure the net is big enough. With a physical net you might get the occasional dolphin with your tuna. With a censorship net, things are just as fraught. No matter what criteria you set for inclusion on the blacklist, there will be some around the edges that are controversial inclusions. There has to be some grey between the black and the white, information that violates the letter if not the spirit of the law. This is where the debate should be focused.
The Government’s net filter will target material that’s Refused Classification – a sort of limbo between illegal material (child pornography) and material able to be distributed for sale as classified content is. All the above nasties would be refused classification. But it’s a pretty big net. Plenty of sexual material that might be considered a bit weird by the average punter would make the list despite being far from abhorrent or illegal. Material promoting drug use or instructing in crime would be banned – not just how to blow up a building, but how to safely use recreational drugs, or detailed discussion of euthanasia. This could be spun as a kind of collateral damage in the war against bestial pornography, but to win a minor battle we’re ceding a lot of ground. A secret blacklist, no matter how well intentioned, is a very real and legitimate free speech concern.
All, as the Minister concedes, to prevent people from “accidentally” stumbling across objectionable images. It has been noted elsewhere that the filter is useless as a law enforcement aid in the fight against child pornography. Cyber-safety for children doesn’t even enter the picture.
Of course, even if you’re inclined to trust the Government’s characterisation of the material to be banned, you’re trusting them – and the next Government – not to widen the net any further. The rhetoric today is on bestiality, but tomorrow the edges can always shift. “Thin end of the wedge” arguments are often dubious, but it’s hard to imagine future governments resisting the pressure to crack down on other objectionable material forever, especially when an election is in the offing.
In short, naturally nobody cares very much about blocking the very nastiest material. However, by its nature that material is so nasty that very few people want to see it, and it’s rare enough that nobody – especially children – are accidentally stumbling across it when reading their email or shopping online. The Government is willing to risk roping in plenty of other sites along with these nasties. Perhaps you think that’s an acceptable risk, and compatible with an open democracy.
If so, that’s well and good – but that’s the real debate we should be having, not scary talk about the worst of the worst.