Australian Civil Liberties Union

Internet Censorship


Electronic Frontiers Australia is opposed to censorship of the Internet by Government and is also opposed to self regulation if that is to mean the enforcement by Internet users and administrators of rules imposed on us by governments. The global society that is the Internet has its own rules and its own methods of enforcing them - rules and sanctions which have been developed over the decades of the Net's existence and which reflect its technological and social realities in a way alternatives imposed from outside cannot.

In its support of user enabled blocking, the Australian Broadcasting Authority has gone half way to recognising that protection of individuals is possible without censorship. What they have not acknowledged is that it is possible without any government intervention at all. There is simply no role for codes of conduct and complaints tribunals when it comes to Internet content: if blocking software fails to perform as advertised, that is a trade practices issue; if a company is employed, to protect school networks from unsuitable material and fails, that is a contractual issue. And it you choose not to filter what you see and find something that offends you, that is your problem and you have no grounds for complaint to anyone. The only useful recommendations of the ABA report in this area are the suggestions for user education and community awareness programs.

The key point is that decisions about what an individual wishes to avoid can only be made by them. The idea of an Australian ratings service is therefore silly, because variation in community standards is greater within countries than between them. Some Australians will prefer ratings services provided by churches; others will prefer to filter on purely intellectual grounds, relying on universities for their ratings. Most will manage without any filtering, simply avoiding things that offend them, No centralised system can provide this sort of flexibility. The history of the Internet has, time and again, shown that only genuinely distributed systems work with distributed problems.

Protecting people from material they find offensive is part of the broader problem of avoiding unwanted information. Electronic junk mail is an example which illustrates how the Internet community can enforce its own rules without government involvement or legal sanctions. Despite the clear commercial benefit, small businesses can obtain from junk email, there is remarkably little of it. Not because there are laws against it, but. because it violates one of the uncodified rules of the Internet. There is no central body which enforces this system of rules - it is maintained by a consensus of Internet users, administrators and organisations, wielding a variety of sanctions.

EFA says that the reasons why censorship of material such as the Rabelais article and Holocaust Revisionist material on Web sites can't work are both technological and sociological. The technical reasons include the sheer volume of data traffic, the difficulty of analysing end-to-end traffic in the middle of a datagram network, and the existence of freely available military-grade encryption software. The social reasons include the ability of individuals to publish material without going through publishers, the need to protect the privacy of individuals, and the free-speech ethos of the Net.

Another problem is that the Internet transcends the boundaries of nation states, raising the question of exactly whose censorship laws should apply. The response of governments is, of course, to seek international agreements to control the Internet, but the kind of extraterritoriality required to make this work is inconceivable. Will the Australian government bow to pressure from the Indonesians and ban the Web pages of East Timorese activists? Will Saudi Arabia get to impose its concept of decency on the rest of the world? Will the United States rescind its First Amendment because it allows Australians freedoms our laws would deny us? It seems unlikely.

But if censorship of the Internet can have very limited effectiveness, attempts at its enforcement have potentially appalling consequences for individuals. At the moment the privacy legislation which covers the postal and telephone systems does not extend to computer networks. (Which is one reason the police are not among those clamouring for new laws). Add to this the fact that it can be impossible to know what one is downloading until after the event, and that with electronic mail one has no control over what one receives at all... the possibilities for selective enforcement and abuse of laws against possession or retrieval of information are obvious.

So what is the difference between suppression of junk email and suppression of Holocaust revisionism or information about drugs'? The difference is that the first is both an attempt to force information on people and a threat to the smooth operation of the internet. The millions who wield power on the Internet those who control the Web servers, the routers, the newsfeeds, and above all the information realise this and act accordingly. While Web sites containing information on drugs, explicit pictures, or neo-Nazi propaganda may offend the sensibilities of some, they do not force themselves on people or hinder the Internet's operation. Without the consensus of Internet users and administrators, external controls are ineffective; with it they are unnecessary.

(EFA Website. Danny Yee).




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Australian Civil Liberties Union