Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Filtering Free Speech

Senator Scott Ludlam - leading the defence of the internet

Amid all the backflips being performed by the Rudd government, there's one backflip they refuse to perform: abandoning their failed internet filter policy. As recently as last week, the government confirmed it was "committed" to the policy.

All parents are concerned about the kinds of images which their children can access on the internet. It seems wrong. There are a range of commercial filters available, but the Rudd government proposes a mandatory filter of the whole internet system when accessed in Australia.

The Rudd filter will be largely ineffective. Filters can be circumvented readily, and much of the deeply offensive material in the internet - such as child pornography - won't be touched at all because this lurks in chat rooms or direct communications - not on sites which would be targeted.

This filter is likely to lull parents into dropping their guard - potentially causing more harm.

The government has carried out some pilot testing of its filter, but that testing is flawed. It was never tested at speed, and failed to meet the government's own criteria.

The filter will be expensive - $44.5 million is currently budgeted. This money could be far better spent on
  • educating parents and children on internet communication, on
  • policing illegal content - especially in the peer-to-peer networks which would not be touched by this proposal, and on
  • co-operation between ISP providers, police and government in targeting child sexual material.
Or parents could decide on their own filter arrangements at the computer itself.

The internet is now a vital medium of communication. We are all the writers, editors, publishers and readers. It is our post office and our film studio - and much more. It is a powerful force for democracy because it gives such unprecedented access to so many people to wide communication. Freedom of expression requires letting the internet function without the government setting up a system to vet it and control it.

No other western government has adopted a mandatory filter like this. We would be joining Saudi Arabia, Iran and China in a repressive approach to internet communication, and we are setting a very poor international example of respect for free speech. The US ambassador has strongly attacked Australia's proposed internet filter.

The government plans to filter out websites - but citizens will not know what websites are on the government's blacklist. We will never know what it is that government is keeping from us, and that means the power being exercised is unaccountable and open to abuse.

One of the perennial problems with this kind of proposal is "function creep". We set up a structure for one purpose, but then it is used for other things. Look at your driver's licence: once a simple piece of paper authorising you to drive on the roads, it is now equipped with a photo and signature, and used as identification for a whole range of purposes, including obtaining a passport. Let's assume a government is filtering the internet now with good intentions. What's to stop someone using this power in future with bad intentions? They could, for example, filter out political views with which they disagree. We would have no means of knowing, because the blacklist is secret.

The Rudd government's internet filter is a grave threat to free speech. It's not as though free speech is protected in Australia in other ways. We are alone among all western nations in not having legal recognition of the right of free speech, except in a few very limited circumstances. The government is pressing forward with its internet filter at the very time they have buckled to pressure not to pass a Human Rights Act, which would have given legal recognition to the right to freedom of expression.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has been leading the charge in parliament against the internet filter, backed up by several community organisations. Electronic Frontiers Australia has published a useful set of answers by Senator Conroy (the Minister responsible for the filter) to questions by Senator Ludlam.

Without open speech, there is no real democracy, because democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and opinions - in any medium. Once you limit free communication between citizens, the powerful will manipulate public opinion, and we will lose the enrichment and greater wisdom that comes from communication with each other.

Let's keep the internet free.

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