Those hoping that the Rudd Government’s plan to impose mandatory and secret censorship upon the Internet would not get through Federal Parliament could be in for a shock. With just weeks left until Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is expected to introduce the legislation, it now seems it may pass and the scheme become a reality.
As founder of a Facebook Group called “Can We Find 50000 Australians Against the Insane Plan To Censor The Web?”, I wrote to Senator Conroy’s shadow minister, Tony Smith, simply asking him what their policy was.
His reply states in part: “The Federal Coalition supports sensible and workable measures to protect children from inappropriate online content. Obviously it would make sense to prevent access, if this could be done, to material that is a crime to possess.”
Calling however for an independent audit of the filtering trials conducted so far, Mr Smith went on to say: “The Coalition is yet to be convinced that mandatory filtering will be effective....The Coalition will continue to consult with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders to enable a fully informed response, if and when the Government puts forward any formal proposal or legislation.”
So even though the Coalition’s final position would appear to remain in play, nowhere in his letter does Mr Smith raise concerns about mandatory censorship of web per se, nor does he raise any concerns about the loss of freedoms for all Australian users if such a plan came into being.
Hs tone prompts concern that the Coalition may posture via amendments but ultimately side with the Government, for fear of Senator Conroy tarring them as collaborating with child pornographers. This is of course pure emotional blackmail of the ilk of George W. Bush’s - “you’re with us or with the terrorists”, but it might work on Tony Abbott, in fear of giving the Government an emotive line of attack, as well as alienating the conservative Christian sector of the Coalition’s voting base.
If Senator Conroy has his way, Australia will be acting as no other major western democracy has seen fit to do - that is, censoring not merely a film or book, but an entire new medium, the importance of which Senator Conroy appears to have scant grasp and no vision.
Last week he told Fairfax’s Tim Lester that the World Wide Web is nothing special and not worthy of particular consideration.
But it is. Just 20 years old, the web is the most powerful tool humanity has developed since the Industrial Revolution, and some see it as the crowning achievement of it. It is still only in its early development, and holds astonishing promise for us all, from personal communication to education, social networking to commerce, self expression to exploring other virtual “selves”.
Yet the Australian Government of Kevin Rudd proposes to hack into this new medium, ostensibly in the interests of protecting us against child pornography and terrorism, even though it knows that such criminals can still go about their terrible business peer-to-peer via file sharing, that the proposed filter will be able to be circumvented by anyone with the will to do so, that it will further slow our already slow web access, and that the filter itself will be a target for hackers with a cause.
Worse still, we will not know which sites are “filtered” out - censored - and once established the technology could be used by this government - and in future by even more conservative ones - to censor political debate and action.
Why has the Australian Government seen fit to embark on such a flawed and foolish scheme when the governments of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, India, Brazil - you name it - do not, and the US Government has expressed its active opposition to the plan? What is the real thinking behind it? Buying off the right wing Christian vote? Appeasing fundamentalists? We will be in the same category as China and Iran, and free speech - and most crucially of all, our certainty that we have the right to it, and that it is occurring - will be in the past.
Last week a Fairfax online poll registered 96% opposition to the Conroy plan, yet still the Government persists, apparently considering the educated online community a less important electorate than religious fundamentalists, Luddites and technophobes.
That online community must now lobby the Federal Opposition to vote against the bill. If it declares itself in favour, then the last straw of hope is that those remnants of the ALP “Left” will vote according to their consciences, as Malcolm Turnbull did on the ETS. But do the remaining ALP moderates have a shred of conscience left, even that of a merchant banker? That they have not tried harder in the party room to stop the plan is a major concern, and probably means that when it comes to the vote they will fall into the party line, no matter what that means for our rights, our freedom of speech, and our democracy.