Is the Internet Filter Australia’s Berlin Wall?

berlin_The history of the last twenty years of the Twentieth Century were, for me, marked by a millennial fervor that swept through society like a great wave of hope. Watching the Berlin Wall topple, seeing the defiance of Tiananmen Square and even the spontaneous outpouring of goodwill that happened during the Sydney Olympics are moments which shine brightly for me. Each of these were individual but also collective statements that spoke about our desire to connect with one another, to experience and make history with our own hands, and to own the consequences of our actions.

Living in the relatively benign political landscape of Australia has meant that such movements largely pass us by. Wholesale political and ideological change can occur here each four years – at the voter’s discretion. Depending on the mood of the public, we can swing from the reformist centre left position taken by the Keating Government to the deeply conservative position adopted by the Howard Government – and not a drop of blood is spilt, not a single car is burnt in anger, and life resumes under the umbrella of what is essentially a radically transformed ideological agenda.

The reason that such large scale political and ideological change can take place, I believe, is in large part to the robust and open democracy which Australia’s political leaders have built over the last hundred years. Fundamental to this has been the freedom of political thought and expression – backed up by rigorous, independent (and in many instances, judicious) review of government decisions.

The internet filter proposed by Senator Stephen Conroy threatens all this. Thus far, the government have focused their arguments around the highly emotive issue of child pornography. There is no question that access to this sort of material should be prohibited. However, only 32% of the sites listed on the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s “blacklist” are related to child pornography. This means that a whopping 68% of sites on the list are there for other reasons – political, ideological, etc – and at the whim of the government in power at the time.

Moreover, the blacklist is NOT available for public scrutiny or independent review. A copy of the blacklist was released on the Wikileaks website earlier in 2009 (a site which is, itself, blacklisted).

In this radio interview with Latika Bourke, former High Court Justice, Michael Kirby suggests that the internet filter may well be the “thin edge of the wedge” when it comes to controlling what the Australian population reads, what it has access to and therefore, how it can behave online.

The internet is, on the whole, a marvellous advance of not only information but also of freedom and of ideas, and of ideas of liberty … we’ve got to just be careful … because if one government, our government, begins to intervene in this, there’ll be other governments that just want to get into it to control the freedom of ideas … ideas which will break down the Berlin Walls of the future. (6:19)

Former supporter and co-author of the original report recommending internet filtering, Michael Flood, has now switched camps. In an interview with Rachel Maher, he suggests that, as a society, we should be having more complex and robust discussions about censorship, access to non-classified material and and the social and educational benefits that accrue through such access:

His discussion of pornography is complex and enlightening and leads us through to the kinds of debate the Federal Government and civil society should be aiming to have: debates that could look simultaneously and intelligently at both harm reduction and access for adults to sexual material online.

But as pointed out by this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, content which is legal for viewing and consumption will also be filtered. This includes information which, while sometimes mildly confrontational, has social and cultural value, including websites which provide:

  • Harm minimisation information for recreational drug users
  • Space for the discussion of gay and lesbian sexuality
  • Analysis of the geopolitical causes of terrorism

More detail and reading on the internet filter

There are plenty of websites offering perspectives and ideas, history and analysis on this controversial subject.

What can you do about the internet filter’s impact on our democracy?

Bernard Keane suggests that any letter writing campaign must be far more strategic than many sites suggest. It is not just a matter of bombarding the local member of parliament or Minister Conroy’s office. It’s about carefully crafting our efforts to raise our concerns with a number of departments. The idea is to generate a significant amount of work across multiple offices of the government.

Please read Bernard’s recommendations carefully, but remember to:

  • Carefully craft your letters – don’t use form petitions
  • Draw in multiple departments and policy areas such as the internet filter + Telstra + national broadband
  • Write this letter specifically to your local member of parliament – even if they are a member of the Opposition
  • Write another version of the letter, with a different focus (eg bring in a discussion of Australia Post or issues relating to Education) to Stephen Conroy
  • Write additional letters to individual Federal Ministers asking how the filter will impact their portfolios and the businesses and individuals they represent – Kim Carr for IT, Jenny Macklin for families, Tony Burke for impact on farming communities etc

Above all, be polite. No matter how passionate and frustrated you may be, remain focused on communicating your frustration not simply expressing it.

Any other ideas? Comments?