Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It is about censorship and it does matter.

Some commentators would have you believe that the only reason to be worried about the proposed mandatory filter is that a) it will be ineffective and b) it might cost something. They urge us to back away from the censorship arguments because these are the "least effective" arguments for opposing the filter.

This is rubbish.

Apart from anything else, mere ineffectiveness is not going to motivate Australians to resist the filter. The Government runs many worthy, if ineffective, anti-obesity campaigns. People won't actively resist public expenditure on an ineffective project unless they actually object to the project in principle. Assuming that the Australian public cares enough about an ineffective proposal to vote against it for reasons of ineffectiveness alone is assuming a level of care that, frankly, has no basis in reality.

Yes, some comparisons which suggest that Australian filtering will be identical to that imposed Iran, China and Saudi Arabia are somewhat overblown. However, as I argue in another post, these examples do serve to illustrate limiting cases and help to remind us that Australia is planning to move far closer to these examples than any other western democracy.

However, to suggest that censorship concerns as a whole are ill-founded is extremely dangerous to the cause.

If your only opposition to the filter is that it is ineffective, then you have little reason in principle to resist an effective filter.

Make no mistake, the Government will implement an ineffective filter, if it is given a chance. However, an ineffective filter will never survive long term. Once the Government has established the right to filter, this or future governments will inevitably use the very ineffectiveness of the filter to argue that a more obtrusive filtering regime is required in order to address the deficiency. Any suggestion that the Government will suddenly be overcome by free-speech zeal and rollback an ineffective filter is pure fantasy - Governments rarely, if ever relinquish a power once granted.

The point of resisting the filter now is not because the practical consequences of the filter being implemented are dire - most people simply won't notice, precisely because the filter will be utterly ineffective. The point of resisting the filter now is to oppose the principle that the Government has the right to decide for itself what Australians may and may not read on the Internet.

If we don't resist now, then when?

If we accept the Government's right to filter ineffectively now, then we will have no reason - in principle - to resist a Government attempt to filter more effectively in the future. If we concede the right to filter now, we will never claw it back.

That's why censorship arguments matter. That's why they matter now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The relevance of comparisons to Iran, China and Saudi Arabia

In the campaign against mandatory ISP-level filtering, much has been made of comparisons with Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

In truth, much of this rhetoric is over-blown. If the mandatory ISP-level filtering is implemented it is unlikely to be as heavy handed or as arbitrary as these regimes.

On the other hand, these regimes still serve as a useful marker - try to name another Western democracy that is attempting to impose a mandatory ISP-level filter against such a broad range of material, and you will be hard pressed to find one.

Australia may not be marching to exactly the same place as Iran, China and Saudi Arabia - it may well stop before it gets there. But let's be clear - there is no other Western democracy standing between Australia, where it wants to go and where Iran, China and Saudi Arabia already are.

If it goes there Australia will be leading other western democracies down a path of increasingly authoritarian interference in online media consumption. This is not healthy, especially when the Government has yet to demonstrate any social utility whatsoever for the mandatory filter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Re: Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd

Back in October 2008, a correspondent reported that a Google search for "Kevin Rudd" produced a Google result set that included some filtered results.

I was intrigued by this and wondered whether it might be possible to use Google to discover more about the contents of the page. I documented what I discovered in this post: "Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd"

In light of the recent news that Google had decided to filter out a search result containing a link to a page on Encyclopedia Dramatica that allegedly contained racist remarks about Aborigines, I decided to see what the Google search I performed back in 2008 revealed.

Interestingly the result set for "Kevin Rudd is a bureaucratic" contains two forum posts neither of which are now blocked. One from a site called Chess Chat and another from a site called Let's talk dirty

What's interesting is that the post on "Let's talk dirty" dates from around 12 October 2008, which was a about a week before my investigations started. When I visited the site today, it contained banner ads linking to sites that offered incest material. I note, however, that the moderation guidelines for the site itself which were last revised on 23 April 2009 exclude material that roughly correspond to the Australian Refused Classification criteria.

Given the apparent nature of the "Let's Talk Dirty" site, and the close correspondence of dates, it seems at least plausible that it was "Let's Talk Dirty" that was the subject of the October 2008 results set filtering performed by Google.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Visualizing the issues

Alison Ruth has created a pictorial representation of the filtering topic space. This might be useful when thinking about any answers you get to the 10 questions about the mandatory ISP-level filter..