I know that politics is not something I usually discuss on my blog, but this is an issue that I feel really strongly about. This is an exert from an essay I wrote earlier this year on my concern about the Australian government trying to implement internet censorship.
In late 2007 the Australian Federal Government put forward a proposal that would have ISP level internet filtering mandatory in all Australian homes, schools, businesses and public computers. This radical scheme of censoring one of the biggest and fastest growing information services that we have access to is supposed to keep children safe from inappropriate content and decrease online crime. However this proposal was met with a high amount of anger from many groups of people in society who believe that it breaches people’s right to freedom of speech, does not consider technological difficulties and will simply not do what it is meant to do anyway.
The filter would target illegal material, including child pornography and online crime, but would also block content that is rated M15 or R that is ‘unsuitable for minors’. This includes content such as violent content or legal pornography. The filter that blocks out legal content such as violence or sexual content is able to be ‘opted-out’ of by adults by contacting their ISP. There is concern however about the fact that the government is rather tight lipped about what exactly will be blocked and who will be deciding what is ‘appropriate’ to block. It is unknown whether content such as information about abortion and contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia or even political content could be targeted now or by the government in the future.
The main reason that the governments wants to filter the internet is to protect children. Telecommunications minister Stephen Conroy said that the government’s plan will make children safer and get rid of illegal content such as child pornography. He insists that it is not a freedom of speech issue and said that “If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labour Government is going to disagree” [www.abc.net.au/news].
However, the opposition has other ideas about what is the real aim of the government’s internet filtering plan is. A spokes person for the Liberal party, Nick Minchin has written off the governments plan and says that it is just an “attempt to sort of outmanoeuvre us for the conservative vote” [www.abc.net.au/lateline]
However, the key issue about this proposal is not whether the government or the opposition agrees with it. It is whether the people of Australia agree with it, and it appears that the majority do not. In a survey done by telecommunications monitor Whirlpool showed that around three quarters of Australians are opposed to internet censorship and only around 13% agree with it. [www.whirlpool.net.au].
One reason that many people do not agree with it is that that they believe the government does not have a right to monitor what we read, see or write on the internet and it is in effect breaching our freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is something that many people believe to be important, it is the ability to say or write about what they choose even if it contradicts others beliefs of morals. Many people believe that we have freedom of speech written in our constitution, but this is not the case. No Australian government has even passed any law that gives Australians the right to freedom of speech, so therefore the government is able to make laws that hinder freedom of speech.
However, in 1948 Australia signed the United Nation’s ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR). Article 19 of the UDHR says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” [www.un.org]
This means that Australia would be breaching international human rights laws by implementing a system that prevents its citizens from accessing information about what they wish.
The government is quick to point out that other countries have successfully implemented internet censorship schemes. However, currently there are no comparable ISP controlled filtering systems in a democratic country. It is true that there are filtering systems in European countries such as the UK and Sweden, but these are usually to prevent accidental access to illegal content, not block all access to legal content. For example in Sweden there is a law that forces ISP service providers that store information to remove content that is clearly illegal. This means that if something is in a grey area, or not illegal the ISP providers have no obligation to remove the content.
In fact the proposed internet censorship plan is more similar to the plans in action in countries under dictatorships or oppressive governments. Saudi Arabia, a country that has no elected political institutions, also has a focus on censoring content that is seen to be by some as ‘immoral’. This includes content such as pornography and information about contraception, homosexuality and drug use.
Even if the censorship proposal is legally able to be implemented many experts on the internet say that the plan is not technologically feasible.
To begin with it is possible for internet filters to be bypassed quite easily. One such way to legally access blocked content is to use a proxy. Originally designed as a privacy tool, a web proxy will enable people to bypass the ISP filtering because it accesses the blocked site for the user. Most PC based filters also block out proxy sites however it would be unreasonable for the government to do the same as proxies are important to many users such as business people to ensure that they are secure on the internet. Another option is to purchase Virtual Private Network (VPN) access from the US or another country with unfiltered internet access. These are encrypted networks which let the user access the internet as if they were in the other country. People in countries such as china are already using these to get around internet censorship. It should also be noted that the proposed filtering system does not filter out files obtained via peer-to-peer file sharing networks, so illegal content and content not suitable for children would still be able to be accessed via that.
Another issue related to censorship is the fact that it would have a noticeable effect on the speed of the internet. In 2008 the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released a report from a test of ISP level content filtering. The test assessed whether the filter blocked out content it should, did not block out content it should not and the loss of speed when in use. The filters that were effective in blocking the right content were the filters that caused the most loss of speed. [www.acma.gov.au] Other government tests have shown that currently available filters would slow down the internet speed by up to 86% [www.theage.com.au]
There would also be a substantial cost associated with filtering the internet in a country where 74.3% of the population use the internet [www.internetworldstats.com]. The federal government has budgeted $44.2 million for four years, [www.libertus.net] however this is only intended to subsidise the initial installation costs. The ISP providers will be responsible for paying for maintenance and technology updates. And it is hard to imagine the ISP providers not passing on this cost to their customers.
There is no doubt that protecting children and stopping online crime is very important. However censoring the internet is not the right way to go about it. Parents should be able to take responsibility and care for their children themselves, not expect the government to do it for them. PC filtering is a more technically feasible and less expensive alternative to ISP filtering and it is also a good idea for parents to supervise their children while they use the internet. The government, instead of spending millions of dollars on internet censorship should instead invest money on the police system and technology to better track down the people who are responsible for illegal content on the internet.
The internet is our media. It is where the people of the world are able to access and share information about what they choose. It should not be up to the government to decide what we can or cannot share.