Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Slippery Slope in Australia

I've said I support, with considerable limitations, the idea of internet filters on computers used by children. I've also been strident in opposing internet filtering for adults, in large part because I see such measures as teetering on the brink of a dangerously slippery slope. The federal government of Australia, in recent months, has taken huge steps in validating my fear: they are showing the world just how slippery that slope really is. The similarities between American and Australian cultures makes this move both surprising and horrifying.

Australian law already prohibits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in that country from hosting what is called Refused Content (RC). ABC News, that's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, describes RC as including "child sex abuse, bestiality, sexual abuse and detailed instructions for crime or drug use." These restrictions are, of course, justified by the aim of "protecting children."

The new twist, the start of the slide down that slippery slope, is in proposed new legislation that would require all ISPs in Australia to block RC that is hosted on servers outside of the country. Apparently, blocking would be done on the basis of a black list, a list of sites that the ISPs are supposed to block, said list to be provided by the federal government. This would not require a piece of software residing on every, or even any, user's computer. The prohibited sites would not be available to anyone, minor or adult, because the ISPs themselves, the companies that connect each individual user's computer(s) to the rest of the planet, will be blocking access to the prohibited sites.

Think about that a minute: the federal government will have the legal authority to create a list of prohibited websites, blocking anything in the world they choose to block, and to force all ISPs in Australia to go along with that blocking. In theory, the government would only place sites containing Refused Content on the black list. But nobody will be able to verify this, since the process of creating the list will be secretive, the actual contents of the list will be an official secret, and nobody will be able to check the list because all the sites on it will be blocked.

Of course, any such black list, even when created with the best of intentions, must have errors in it, sins of both omission and commission. This has already been demonstrated, since a preliminary version of the list was leaked to the press. The media have mocked with gusto the blocking of the websites of a "dentist and a truckshop consultant."

And who in their right mind would assume that any government, given the ability to block internet content with impunity, could resist abusing that power?

Similarly bizarre and totalitarian efforts have been attempted in the United States, such as the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), both resoundingly overturned by the Supreme Court. At the moment we operate under the much tamer Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), binding only on libraries that accept federal funds, plus a patchwork of state-mandated and voluntary internet filtering efforts. None of these is so centralized or chilling as what Australia is now considering.

And yet, there is that same element here in the U.S. There seems to be no shortage of those who would pressure a library to accept government funds just to force that library to comply with the CIPA. Once the library is CIPA-compliant, there's always someone who appoints herself or himself sheriff, looking over other people's shoulders, and raising a ruckus if somebody is looking at a website the self-appointed sheriff doesn't approve of. And once the ruckus has been raised, there's always some dunderheaded councilperson or commissioner or school board member who will try to take advantage of the mess to impose further restrictions on what adults can access on the web. And once those restrictions are added on, there's always an "error," an"oversight," blocking access to something that should never be blocked.

Australian media are quite right to point out that the proposed law puts their country in the same league with China and Iran. And if it can happen in Australia, it can happen in the U.S.



  1. Oh jeez, that is scary. Come on Australians! Protest about this!

    I think it's about time we did another book review. Looking For Alaska perhaps?