The Minister of Propaganda . . . er, sorry . . . Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has gotten a bit miffed about the recent Enemies of The Internet report published by Reporters without Borders. That report notes that nationwide filtering rules now under consideration could place Australia in the same category as China and Iran in terms of internet censorship. In a March 15th article on iTWire, Minister Conroy is described as saying that Reporters Without Borders has been misled about what the government is actually trying to do, and that the comparison with oppressive regimes is unfair. While making this characterization, the Minister offered no details explaining how the Australian plan he is backing is actually different from, say, China's. The iTWire article also notes:
Senator Conroy said the Refused Classification material targeted by the filter could not be distributed through books, on TV, cinemas or DVD – a ban that is supported by "each and everyone in this chamber. But apparently this new distribution platform otherwise known as the Internet should be something sacred. It should not have to play by the rules of Australia," Senator Conroy said.
Minister Conroy is quite right, and here is an object lesson against censorship by government. Australia having a well-established history of censorship of books and movies, the extension of that censorship to the internet seems only logical. I'm not sure, though, that the censorship of books and movies in Australia has anything like the stealth that their proposed censorship of the Internet has. The plan allows the national government, in secret, to develop a blacklist of websites to which all Australians will be denied access, and allows that the contents of the blacklist remain a secret. A government website about the plan backhandedly acknowledges this secrecy problem by promising that "The Government will immediately undertake public consultation . . . on additional measures to improve the accountability and transparency of processes that lead to Refused Classification-rated material being placed on the RC Content list." The public is here being told to allow a secret process to go into effect and trust that the government will make the process more transparent in the future.
The category of materials that the plan would block, everything that Australian law already terms "Refused Classification," is shockingly broad and vague. A government website on the plan summarizes (only summarizes) the material in this category as including: "child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act." In the U.S., censorship is based mostly on obscenity, a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. The established system of Australian censorship adds at least four categories (crime, violence, drug use, terrorism) that are equally difficult to pin down. Sadly, Australian law has long allowed government suppression of all such content in print and other media, and that suppression is now being extended to the internet.
It seems never to have occurred to Minister Conroy that Australia's problem is not that that it now censors the internet too little, but that it already censors books and other media too much.
Are we in the same situation in the U.S.? Not yet. Far from it in fact. While the censorship of print and other media was once commonplace, courts have been whittling away at it for decades. The federal government is almost entirely out of the censorship business, and even state governments rarely attempt to censor anything, with the exception of pornographic materials that are sufficiently hard core to meet the legal definition of obscenity. Censorship of other materials continues to happen on a very small scale, a school district here, a public library there. These instances of censorship are often illegal, and are easily overturned in court, if anybody has the presence of mind to challenge them.
But the internet is frightening to governments. Since websites are hosted on computers around the world, no national government can legislate content restrictions that work. The uncontrollability of the internet seems to raise the hackles of governments everywhere, even in the U.S. Leaping ahead of its historical respect for Freedom of Expression, the U.S. government tried to extend censorious control over the internet. Its first two attempts, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) were quickly overturned in the courts. The third and greatly reduced attempt, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), is currently in effect, applying only in schools and libraries that accept certain government monies, and allowed by the courts only because the law permits adults to have the required filter turned off if they want to surf the web without it.
These trends should be as disturbing to North Americans as they are to at least some Australians. Within the U.S. government, the legislative branch demonstrated, by attempting to implement the CDA and COPA, that it was willing to ignore traditional respect for Free Speech and to trample basic civil liberties underfoot. We were spared this by an alert judicial branch, not by legislative competence. In Australia, in a legal system only a little different from our own, the national government is poised to take control of internet content to a degree that U.S. legislators never dared to dream possible. Except now they have an example to follow.