Why is Australia really moving forward with net filtering?

A strong editorial in today’s Sydney Morning Herald on the Australian government’s proposed internet censorship regime (destined to both fail and embarrass):

Stephen Conroy, the Communications Minister, is feeling the heat over his attempt to censor the internet for Australians. The latest critic is the US government. Conroy, of course, is used to criticism. Internet polls overwhelmingly oppose his measure. He was 2009’s villain of the year at international internet industry awards for his singleminded doggedness in his self-appointed task. Reporters Without Borders has placed Australia on its list of countries under surveillance as a possible ”internet enemy”. He has shrugged it all off. We do not doubt he has the self-belief similarly to shrug off criticism by the US State Department as just more carping from an ungrateful world.

Yet the minister should listen more closely. His explanations for what he proposes have been inadequate, and his justifications are equally so. He lists sites dealing with child pornography and bestiality as among those that would be banned as having been refused classification – just as publications would be in other media. He asks: what’s so special about the internet? The answer is: nothing. But Conroy compares the internet with means of publishing – books, films – and assumes it should be subject to the same classification controls as they are. In fact it should be compared with free means of communication – speech, telephones, newspapers – which it more closely resembles, and in which governments intervene less because intervention is less likely to be effective.

Technology, in effect, makes his arguments about child pornography and terrorist communications into red herrings. As information technology experts attest, a filter will not work. Child pornography and other horrors will still be available to those internet users who pursue the (not particularly sophisticated) ways to circumvent it. The great majority of internet users, needless to say, will steer well clear unprompted. But by trying to control the net, Conroy raises expectations that such a thing can be done. When the measure fails, as it will, there will be pressure to crack down harder, to restrict freedoms further. And what happens when various pressure groups – well intended, no doubt, every one of them – decide that they would like views opposing theirs censored, and start to pressure governments to limit net access further? Can we be confident that Conroy would defend freedom of speech in particular instances, now that he has so easily given away the general principle?

By trying to sanitise the net, he is limiting what is becoming a basic medium of information exchange, and gagging freedom of speech. He should stop now.

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