Samuel Webster

December 5, 2009 Don’t Be Dirty: Why Internet Censorship is About More Than Pornography Posted In: Writing

Originally written for Trespass Magazine, Published December 5th, 2009

Back in 1995, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie aired a skit on “A bit of Fry and Laurie”. It was a pseudo game show called “Don’t be Dirty”, where the contestants had to describe risqué topics without being ‘dirt-eh’. The absurdity comes with the notion that the new ‘cleansed’ descriptions are really in no way cleaner than their ‘dirty’ counterparts, they are just censored.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26FKgGK84po

Image by net_efekt on flickr

As Kevin Rudd ventures forward with his plan to censor Australia’s Internet access, I feel like this is a perfect example to explain why I think that this kind of blanket censorship is fundamentally flawed. The plan will ban anything deemed R-Rated, and may extend to include sites on euthanasia and anorexia. Since one of Rudd’s campaign promises was for a faster nationwide internet system to match our international counterparts, this has come to a shock of many of his election supporters (myself included).

There are plenty of opinion pieces around that are rallying for ‘free speech’ and as such, this will not be one of them. I feel that this topic goes deeper than denying people access to information, it also will impact the type of information that is created. Here is my list of perceived impacts on information media if the plan goes ahead.

1. “Censoring the internet will stop our children finding explicit/child pornography” is not an argument for blanket censorship

a)      The bureaucratic response to pornography, and child pornography online, is to provide a filter through Internet Service Providers to block out anything that is considered to be unacceptable. The reason this doesn’t surprise me? They have existed for over ten years. Net Nanny services are definitely not a new invention. They are software solutions which allow parents to block (and in some cases monitor) certain activities online, at their discretion, to protect their children. The reason why this shouldn’t be applied nationwide is simple. Not everyone has children, and parents shouldn’t be relying upon governmental systems to dictate the way they raise their kids.

Tip: If you are a parent and want to filter the internet for your children, the Government has already supplied you with a free internet filter you can install. There are also plenty of other software solutions around which may provide you with more versatility to your children’s safety.

b)      Senator Conroy stated that “If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.”

The argument against internet censorship should never be considered an argument for pornographic content. The issue goes deeper. We are not arguing that the internet should be viewed en masse by anybody of any age. We are arguing that blanket censorship is a violation of our right to information, which for some people might include adult material, but for the majority includes opinion-based Podcasts with an adult rating, blogs and artistic portfolios (we’ll get to this later).

2. Blanket Censorship is a band-aid.

Child pornography, music and software privacy and cyber terrorism are already prohibited by law. Why do they still exist then? Because the people involved in these practices are ahead of the ballgame. The very notion of hacking is based around exploiting security holes in systems that the so-called “mainstream” technology sector has built. It’s a challenge for a hacker to exploit the system, it’s a goal they set themselves and a crack in the armour is a cause for celebration. Not only does nationwide censorship turn a technological ‘blind eye’ to the problem, it doesn’t do anything to solve it. If anything, the filter will be another thing to crack. Additionally, the filter doesn’t affect all internet traffic, just ‘web’ (http) traffic. So peer-to-peer networks will not feel the effect, but written online media will.

3. A nationwide filter will not affect the biggest offenders.

So why am I so adamantly against the filter if it’s just going to be destroyed by the other side within weeks? Because not everyone has that kind of muscle.

For example: Joe Smith writes a blog where he fears no censorship. He chooses his language wisely, sometimes he uses an explicit word to further engage with his reader. In a world where emotions are so easily misconstrued (due to lack of facial expressions), his readers know when he is angry by the words he chooses, the capitalisation he employs, the emoticons which litter his speech. He also happens to write about political subjects, such as the Northern Territory Intervention, and criticises the Howard and Rudd governments. He has no technical experience beyond blogging but his site is banned within weeks for ‘language’ (his political leanings don’t have to be even put on paper). He has no way to get his information out there, he doesn’t possess the technical expertise to bypass the filter.

The result: His readership drops. Not a big deal, right? A by product of a bad situation. There are two reasons why it matters. 1) Bloggers make money through advertising and their readership counts. He is out of pocket for being deemed ‘beyond mainstream’. 2) His media status reduces. This is the biggest issue out there which I want to address in its own point.

4. Who gets to decide?

Do you think it should be up to a group of middle-aged, politically minded men, with noted conservative views to decide what is best for a medium used mostly by Generation X and Y?

The fundamental driving force of democracy is that people are elected in a way that means decisions are made that reflect the majority. However, the ones who seem to be fighting for free speech would not agree with this initiative. But Sam, didn’t they vote for Kevin Rudd? Yes, they did, as an alternative to the more conservative John Howard. I know a lot of creative people who wouldn’t have voted for Kevin if they knew that he would publically denounce Bill Henson (arguably one of Australian’s leading photographers) and then proceed on that bandwagon towards censorship.

Last year, photo sharing giant Flickr (now a part of Yahoo!) started censoring images in a tiered system. As a result, a great deal of ‘artistic nudes’ were considered pornographic for the amount of skin they showed. The artists involved found it extremely difficult to argue their case. It is this kind of arbritary branding of ‘adult material’ that makes nationwide censorship a scary concept for artists.

Surely the power of censorship should be in the hands of the user, especially since there is no argument to be made that censorship will curb the propensity of illegal material.

5. Media Heirarchy and Net Neutrality

This is certainly not a new concept, it’s happened in print media too, though usually the other way around. Millionaire owner of print media outlet happens to support the Labor government, front page articles also happen to support the Labor government. Compare the bias in Australia’s major newspapers. The Daily Telegraph versus The Age for examples.

What happens when it turns around?

The tech filter will most definitely have a higher number of blogs blocked for ‘suspicious content’ because their real life reputation cannot help them. The Sydney Morning Herald online could publish anything without being blocked because of the outcry that would occur. The impact of blogs is minor on a political/social scale. But this establishes a hierarchy of mainstream to alternative media. Alternative media is needed. It will never be in the majority but shouldn’t be. It exists to provide an opposing viewpoint to the mainstream, and thus leave the reader with enough decisions to make up their own mind.

Net Neutrality is a word that is being thrown about quite heavily in the United States right now, but it is relevant here to. The concept is explained quite well in the following video and at the Wikipedia entry. If you’re interested, you should also visit SaveTheInternet.com

The reason that Net Neutrality is relevant to the Rudd Government’s censorship plan, is that the media hierarchy I referred to earlier is similar to what was being proposed in the US earlier this year. Internet Service Providers restrict access to websites who cannot afford to pay for the bandwidth. This means that multi-million dollar companies can be viewed quickly, while your blog will be the slowest cab off the rank. Internet Censorship has the ability to do the same thing, ultimately blocking the weakest fish in the pond so the big fish can thrive.

6. “Why is Media Heirarchy a bad thing? I like the Daily Telegraph!”

An extended Media Heirarchy is a bad thing because it restricts the flow of information in two directions. Firstly, it restricts it to a political leaning defined by mainstream media. That is, Media Heirarchy ensures that the news and political advice you receive is narrow. Net Neutrality gives you a wide range of options. This is not an argument for leftist media, or Alternative sources. It’s an argument for democratic decision making based on a wide range of available media.

The other way that the hierarchy restricts information is speed and response time. We all know of the blogger who posted from Iraq on the day that his city was bombed. That event would never occur in traditional print media. There would be at least a day before the story was printed and it would likely be edited, censored and ‘polished’ into a ‘newsworthy’ story, rather than being left to portray the sheer emotion of a man trapped in a new warzone. The rise of social media (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter) and internet media has meant that the reader wants information as soon as it is available. Blogs have that capacity and mainstream media is yet to catch up.

A Call to Arms:

Please, please, get the word out on this stuff. You don’t have to agree with me, in fact, I’d be more than welcome to see a slew of blog posts on why I’m wrong. The point is that we need to have the debate, we need to have the opinions thrown around because that in itself will show the power of the internet, free of censorship.

If you have a blog, please feel free to write a post about this stuff, e-mail me or leave a comment and I will try and link to it from here. If you don’t blog, use the ShareThis button below to post this article on your Facebook profile, on your MySpace, through your e-mail lists and get the word out to the general population why Rudd’s plan is not necessarily all roses.

This argument is an easy one to let slip, especially if its supporters are lauded as saviours, and its detractors as pornographers. It’s up to the everyday man to spread the word before we no longer have the power to.

Some other articles on this topic:

Dear Kevin Rudd by Liz at Jarod and Liz

Adult Australians don’t need a net nanny – Jennifer Dudley, Courier Mail

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