Internet Censorship in Australia – what are they thinking?

This was a comment on Russell Blackford’s blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. He was rather irritated about the internet censorship trial underway in Australia, and particularly about the minister responsible and his performance on an episode of the ABC’s Q&A program. I watched it and wrote the following:

I just watched that Q&A episode, and found it illuminating.

I think Steven Conroy believes in what he is doing, and not for weird right wing / religious reasons. If you listen carefully to what he says, you’ll notice that he is starting with different axioms than most of the rest of us are.

He was defending the filtering trials as just being the same as what we have for books, movies, etc, and pointed out that this blacklist is a pre-existing thing, part of our regular censorship process (previously unenforced/unenforceable).

Imagine you believed in the current censorship regime. Your premise is something like “there are bad things out there that decent people shouldn’t have to see, and it is part of the government’s job to sort that out”. It’s feels anachronistic now, but it’s a mainstream conservative position, that comes out of mainstream conservative values. It also relies on some related unspoken assumptions (part of that value system) relating to the importance of hierarchies, respecting authority, maintaining order, that kind of stuff. Jonathan Haidt explains this better than I ever will: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html .

Saying that this is attacking free speech will not impress someone with this value system. You have to hold a politically small-l liberal set of values to care about freedom more than order. He will hear people saying “free speech” and just think “this person doesn’t know what is good for them”.

What no one articulated in that program were these things:

1. The problem that the government is trying to solve with censorship is indeed a problem, that is not disputed. Things like child pornography are truly bad and wouldn’t exist in a perfect world.

2. However, the only way the censorship solution can work is via an unaccountable body doing the censorship on everyone else’s behalf (Conroy: “If we published the list, it would defeat the purpose of the list”). We do not trust them to do that job. It’s not that we don’t trust Steven Conroy, or the current government bodies in this area in particular, it’s that no one can be trusted with that job in general. That is the fundamental premise of free speech; not that we want child porn, but that there is no way that we can guarantee censorship without abuse.

3. This censorship push is being partly justified by saying “it’s just more of the same, same as with movies, books, games”. What needs to be clearly articulated here is that we don’t believe in that, either. There is no more reason to trust censors with books and movies than with the internet.

So this, I believe, is an old-school liberal vs conservative clash. They believe we need to be protected from ourselves, we say no one can be trusted with that job, particularly anyone who volunteers for it! All the stuff about slowing down the internet, we’ll just be able to circumvent it anyway, etc etc, is a sideshow.

I’d like to see opposition to the filtering grow, knock out the filtering push, then roll on into knocking out censorship in this country altogether.

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Internet Censorship in Australia – what are they thinking?

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