Thursday, January 14, 2010


by Larry Buttrose

Some months ago I saw a rack of Penguin classics in my local post office, and noticed Lady Chatterly’s Lover among the titles. I couldn’t help but smile at remembering the controversy it aroused and the censorship it suffered in decades long past. Now here it was, on sale in the post office, a sure sign of human progress and maturity.

Just a few days after that I read that the book was being withdrawn from post offices. It seems that even in the new millennium, Lady Chatterly was adjudged too risqué for people licking their stamps. 

It made me wonder whether other books might not disappear from post office shelves, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for instance. After all, despite it being a mordant denunciation of totalitarianism, it does have a sex scene or two. Would that be considered too much for the stamp-lickers, and disappear just as it would have in Orwell’s dystopia?

All of the old battles of censorship are now being revisited through the Rudd Government’s ill-conceived, bizarre and bloody-minded determination to go ahead with its internet “filter”. “Filter” is Newspeak for censorship. What Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy intend to do is censor the content of the world wide web, the greatest tool for disseminating knowledge and free expression the world has ever seen. Why they would indulge in such a monstrous folly, and who they intend to impress by their cyber vandalism, remains debatable.

The arguments advanced are truly pathetic. Firstly, we are told that the targets are child pornography and home bomb making instructions for potential terrorists. But if by any chance such sites were effectively blocked, those wanting to access such information and images could readily do so by sharing files with similarly twisted minds. After all, both paedophiles and terrorists are definitive networkers. So to stop them sharing information, the government would have to view and censor all email too. No doubt Stephen Conroy has already thought of this.

Then there is the question of who would be the gatekeepers of information, and decide which sites we could or could not see. Cardinal Pell might be invited to sit on the committee. The Roman Catholic Church does after all have a long history of involvement with sexual crimes against children. The Anglicans have similar form too, and could dispatch their own eminence grise. 

A posse of academics would inevitably be involved. They could frame their reasons for banning this or that site in suitably incomprehensible postmodernist jargon, adding that ideal extra layer of opacity to the process. Upstanding churchgoers from the business community could be invited - oil or coal company executives perhaps, or someone from the board of James Hardie - or politicians themselves, definitive paragons of virtue, being honourable members. 

The image of such an august gathering of high and holy minds viewing endless hours of pornographic images and videos to determine which crosses whatever line may be drawn, is a delicate one indeed. Why not just get Steve Fielding and Hillsong Church to tell us what we may see online? That, effectively, is that Kevin Rudd is doing. 

The question remains too about whether any such “filter” could be effective in a world where hackers can get into the Pentagon and destructive viruses are created daily by teenagers bored with Grand Theft Auto. It would become an online security nightmare, a never-ending battle with phantom legions seeking to disable and destroy it. It would present hackers with a digital just war, a fight for free speech, a fat white elephant forever dangling in their laser sights in cyberspace.

All this begs the question of what the Rudd Government is doing throwing in its lot with the Fieldings and Niles, and turning its back on key constituencies of its win in 2007 - the young, and the educated. These are two sections of the community that are heavily reliant on a fast, open internet. How will they feel about Rudd slowing access and tying their web in knots while he appeals to pre-digital grannies for having made life harder for those terrorists who don’t even know how to make bombs.

The greatest threat is what might happen in the future. Once set up, and in the hands of an even more conservative government - say, for argument’s sake, Tony Abbott’s - what other sites might come onto the radar for censorship? How about those advising women on abortion or contraception, or the terminally sick on euthanasia? How about global warming, or stem cell research? Perhaps some future government might see fit to block those sites disseminating the dangerous fable of evolution, or that the earth is really round.

Perhaps too they would stop us reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover, by blocking sites like the Gutenberg Project which post the whole text ( or the politically inflammatory and sexually titillating Nineteen Eighty-Four. Who after all needs to read George Orwell in the perfect Big Brother world of Rudd and Conroy?

The government’s proposed web censorship will appeal only to the god-bothering, the paranoid and the technophobic. Is this the constituency Kevin Rudd really wishes to swap, for the young and the educated? Censorship is and never will be a cure for perceived failings and dangers in others, but instead is an affliction of the mind suffered by the pompous and the self-righteous, and bloody-minded fools. 


  1. Awesome entry. However, I don't think the "filter" will be introduced. Too many active hackers in Australia will stop it. K. Rudd has already been hacked. Once the filter is set to go through, they will up the ante drastically and these idiots will get a taste of what they can really do.
    Denial of service attacks are all they've really done so far.
    Censorship of the internet is an ongoing war, it will never end because human nature is very lazy and the majority prefer to have their thinking done for them by others.

  2. Thanks Thomas. I hope you are right that a filter won't be possible, though the Rudd Govt seems very determined to try to go ahead with one. I agree too with your thoughts about censorship in general. Unfortunately too few people think about the real ramifications of censorship, and what it says of a society that accepts such measures.

  3. Wow. Larry, this blogging stuff is new for me but I will learn from the master. Totally in agreement with your take on this proposal. It's who gets to decide what is and is not offensive that really worries me. John Cooke.

  4. Fear not, Larry B, for there are those of us who would use suitably incomprehensible postmodernist jargon to mount arguments against censorship. I think that disciplines like Psychology are probably more likely to find representatives to get on board and support 'filtering' than post-modernists.

    How would cultural relativism gel with the idea that someone else knows what is appropriate for others to view? Perhaps you're imagining some kind of Baudrillardian argument where one argues that the images of children are more valuable than children themselves and so images deserve protection. Unfortunately, that is not the thinking of an ivory tower post-modernist but is actually closer to the reasoning that was used in order to find that pornographic images of the Simpsons were upheld as child pornography - a Supreme court (NSW) ruling where 'fictious persons' are found to bear the same rights as 'persons'.

    As I was suggesting earlier, it is disciplines like psychology/criminology (and the discourse promoted by organisations like ECPAT) that have betrayed the liberal and logical divide between thoughts and actions; and 'postmodernists' shouldn't be blamed for that one ;)

    An internet filter will achieve little, but it will give a wider demographic of Australians experience with using darknets/TOR etc. I guess I'm glad that we all get to learn some new skills (or those who want to). I don't want the filter but, as far as I'm concerned, it digs the (political) grave of any politicians who support it.

    For my money, the Internet filter itself is not so much the problem but rather, the legacy of censorship that Australians have endured. Our governments don't trust us and we're seemingly too trusting of our governments. It actually makes me quite sad. I'm find the desire to censor so desperate and depressing. What are people trying to block? If the information is offensive then it has to have meaning and if it has meaning then perhaps the idea already had some currency, in which case the horse must have already bolted. We can't censor an idea prior to its inception. If you sit around thinking of new, potentially offensive ideas, so that you may ban them before others think them then you've probably fallen through the looking glass.

    Like Todd Gitlin said in 1994, the obsession with the obscenity of images is a symptom of despair that society feels in addressing the problems depicted in the images. I think if we want to fight censorship, we need to unpack the wooly bullies and boogie woogies that are caught up in ideas like, 'terrorist', 'fundamentalist', 'theist', 'paedophile', 'child sexual abuse', 'pornography'. I'm confident we're able to stabilise the situation but censorship is counterproductive to this goal, besides its obviously unacceptable costs (limiting the right to speak and the right to listen). Like the faith healer who takes time and money that could be spent on effective treatment, those who wish to censor can offer only the mildest of panaceas, which is probably most appropriately described as a placebo.

    Nice blog.