Wowsers are Winning

By Legal Eagle

Here at Skepticlawyer we’re shocked to see that the wowsers have apparently won the battle over compulsory internet censorship. The Age reports:

The Federal Government has announced it will proceed with controversial plans to censor the internet after Government-commissioned trials found filtering a blacklist of banned sites was accurate and would not slow down the internet.

But critics, including the online users’ lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam, said the trial results were not surprising and the policy was still fundamentally flawed.

The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, said today he would introduce legislation just before next year’s elections to force ISPs to block a blacklist of “refused classification” (RC) websites for all Australian internet users.

The blacklist, featuring material such as child sex abuse, sexual violence and instructions on crime, would be compiled using a public complaints mechanism, Government censors and URLs provided by international agencies.

“Most Australians acknowledge that there is some internet material which is not acceptable in any civilised society,” he said.

“It is important that all Australians, particularly young children, are protected from this material.”

So it looks like we will all have mandatory internet filtering whether we want it or not. The big question, though, is what goes on the filter list. Who decides what is acceptable and what is not?

Let’s take a Peter Singer article for starters. It’s called Heavy Petting and he discusses the continuing taboo against bestiality. He notes:

Heard anyone chatting at parties lately about how good it is having sex with their dog? Probably not. Sex with animals is still definitely taboo. If Midas Dekkers, author of Dearest Pet, has got it right, this is not because of its rarity. Dekkers, a Dutch biologist and popular naturalist, has assembled a substantial body of evidence to show that humans have often thought of “love for animals” in ways that go beyond a pat and a hug, or a proper concern for the welfare of members of other species.

The rest of the article discusses this in fairly fruity language.

You might think this is pretty whacky, but apparently there’s a growing movement of “zoophiles”, according to this Slate article (which also offers trenchant criticisms of Singer’s piece).

Now obviously both the Slate piece and the Singer piece involve discussion of bestiality in a way which is very challenging. Would pieces such as these be banned under the new legislation? Should they be banned? I seriously don’t think so, even if the subject matter is offensive and challenging for many people.

Of course, the government has wheeled out the “but it’s to protect the kiddies” argument yet again. I am a mother, yet I don’t think we need something like this to protect my children. I will protect my children, thank you very much. I really like David Jackmanson’s thoughts at Strange Times on this legislation:

After the discussions we had here a year or so ago about this issue, I think we need to spread the idea that Australians need to take responsibility for their own viewing habits and not expect the Government to nanny them, and we need “maximum freedom for the maximum amount of people”. There was also a good discussion about laying a political cost on the Government by painting THEM as the creepy weird ones who are obsessed with people looking at nude pictures of children.

We can take responsibility for our own viewing/reading habits, thank you very much. Government, lay off, and let me make my own choices.

The interesting thing will be to see how Abbott will react to this. Abbott is, of course, a big government conservative out of the Howard mould, and I wonder whether he would have a problem per se with the government controlling what we can and can’t look at on the basis of morality. SL pointed me to Hayek’s essay on Why I Am Not a Conservative:

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the notion of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule — not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds on other people.

It may be that, on this issue at least, Abbott is not so far from the government’s position.

‘Slippery slope’ arguments can get a bit tedious after a while, but that doesn’t make at least some of them very compelling. I must admit this one gives me a mental image of a skier on top of a steep black run. Unless you’re very, very good — and fundamentally decent and uninterested in the blandishments of power, as Hayek points out above — then once you dig your poles in and start down that run, it will be very, very difficult for you — or anyone like you — to stop.

And already Kevin Rudd’s website has been brought down by internet activists protesting against the ISP filtering.

Elsewhere: Robert Merkel at LP


  1. Posted December 15, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    The Golden Ass; Metamorphoses; Pasiphae; Juvenal; Catullus… hey, you Roman dudes, you’re ALL ON THE INDEX OF PROHIBITED BOOKS AGAIN…

  2. Posted December 15, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    SL… Yep… any excuse to shut down the classics departments. Doubtless renaissance art and The Bard will be severely curtailed.

    I went through the report. Even when the filter was loose enough to let 20% of the nasty stuff through, 3% of innocuous content was blocked.

    (And by the way, I’ve actually been in a device like Daedalus built for Pasiphae, used to make collections from stud bulls to fill straws. Glad I was only in it when it wasn’t in use, and would hate to have the job of collector… not enough steel reinforcement for my liking)

    Pell’s probably working on the beatification of KRudd and Conroy as of today.

  3. The real wowsers
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Are our personal liberties really limited by banning exploitation sites already “censored” in every other piece of media?

    Banning these sites removes the commercial syndication of child exploitation etc which presently encourages the lucrative business.

    Censorship also removes the ridiculously easy-access of the material to people you don’t want to encourage around your children.

    Western countries have a diversity of media available in that will always permit freedom of expression where it doesn’t hurt our most vulnerable.

    Come-on guys – will you really be affected by banning child porn sites? You can always buy a “classical” book if you can’t find it on the internet.

  4. Posted December 16, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    This legislation is all about control of information. Politicians and their media magnate buddies are scared shitless of twitter and other social media because a: they dont know how to use it properly and b: it keeps them accountable.
    I only found out about the trafigura toxic waste scandal via twitter

    Cut off our access to information and you effectively cut off our voices. Australians are an apathetic bunch anyway and I think that is one of the reasons that we are being used as a test case. As well as the fact that we are a smallish island population, not too many telecommunications companies to contend with etc etc.

    So lets gag Australia and see what happens. If the politicians get away with it here my friends, YOU will be next.

  5. Posted December 16, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    And if China – and the the middle-class Chinese 8 year olds I know are representative of the kids who grow up with overt censorship and high technology – inevitably LE’s Eaglets will be accomplished computer hackers before they can use cutlery.

    There already are perfectly good strategies for dealing with kids getting access to porn, and for unsavory elements reaching out to them via the interweby thing, if that’s the worry. It’s called installing Netnanny (or similiar) and not letting the little blighters have computers in their rooms until they’re old enough to pay their own internet bills.

  6. conrad
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “Are our personal liberties really limited by banning exploitation sites already “censored” in every other piece of media?”
    I think child-porn and so on are really non-issues. As you’ve noticed, they’re banned everywhere already, and no doubt the punishment for their propagation and deliberate acquistion and storage is pretty harsh in most places also — so they’re already covered by other laws. In addition, all the stuff I’ve bumped into by accident or hits my spam tray isn’t going to be banned in any case, and wouldn’t even be considered marginal unless you’re a Chinese/other-authoritarian-country official. The only reason I actually knew where I could find marginal stuff was thanks to the Government’s list hitting wikileaks (not that I’m looking).
    Why on Earth is this on the prohibited list, even for school kids?

  7. Sylvia.F
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    What do ancient Roman poets have to do with Conroy’s porn filtering?

  8. John
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Two issues here:

    To my knowledge there is no clear relationship between sexual crimes and pornography.

    The filter will also prevent information on various illicit drugs. Big problem here: there are now many drugs that are not covered under legislation. If the government chooses to ban any information on these drugs it is clearly breaching our common law rights.

    There are some sites that present very balanced issues on drugs and do not advocate their use but clearly do not disapprove of drug use. Eg.

    Will this be banned?

    If the govt claims its role is to prevent the exploitation of children then there is one very easy way to eliminate this: make any organisation that either has a high rate of documented child abuse or covers up such child abuse illegal. Scouts, Catholic Church … . No way that’s gonna happen now is it? In fact it could, and has been argued, that the Catholic Church has aided and abetted these crimes. No, I’m not in favour of such a move just trying to suggest a certain inconsistency in the government’s approach to this issue. Nor do I think the C. Church or Scouts are evil and I do believe these organisations have largely addressed the issue. I still deem them guilty of aiding and abetting though, if only by omission. Sorry, me weak on law and a whole lot else!

    BTW: I think Abbott would be on very dangerous political ground in challenging this ISP filter.

    Finally, the government must ban the TV show “Weeds”!

  9. Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Novel, not play, but you get the idea.

    The inevitable danger with all of these things is the ripple effect… you get first the thing itself banned, then representations of the thing, then discussions of the thing, then… well, it just gets out of control. I found the two articles on bestiality LE cites in the post pretty confronting when I first read them a while ago, but I couldn’t conceive of them being banned. Whenever these net filter schemes are trialled, not only does the ‘thing itself’ go (call it porn), but so very often does the ancient novel or the Salon article on that thing.

    Another aspect that no-one has mentioned is that filter schemes make it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to catch the real child pornographers (who are, in any case, difficult to track down at the best of times). Some of the problems of ‘mission creep’ are persuasively outlined here.

  10. John
    Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    There are already sites where you can download just about anything, even full versions of a multitude of scientific journals, and do so by going through a server which masks your identity by stripping DNS material. They can’t stop this and most youth I have spoken too know all about Limewire and Torrent Reactor(great site, can get anything there, even next years series of Family Dad). It will be a matter of weeks and people will be advising how to stop the filter. So the govt must then ban these people from telling others how to … .

  11. Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Robert Merkel used a video from the BBC (on the ‘how to break the law’ theme) to illustrate his point. It just gets out of control over time.

    I also think that focussing solely on the technical difficulties gets you only so far; it is only a matter of time (albeit a long time, I suspect) before someone comes up with a filter that doesn’t slow dow the internet. But coming up with a filter that can tell the difference between porn, Apuleius and Peter Singer writing about bestiality is damnably difficult, and starts to raise complex and very difficult issues to do with freedom of speech. The danger, of course, is that this is speech that the great bulk of people don’t want to protect, which is how censorship always starts: it never seems to apply to me… until it does.

  12. Posted December 16, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    There already are perfectly good strategies for dealing with kids getting access to porn, and for unsavory elements reaching out to them via the interweby thing, if that’s the worry. It’s called installing Netnanny (or similiar) and not letting the little blighters have computers in their rooms until they’re old enough to pay their own internet bills.

    I think Theodora has a very good point. Why exactly is it necessary to inconvenience the entire population to solve a ‘problem’ that’s caused by parents failing to supervise their children properly?

    If you don’t want your kids looking for internet porn then don’t let them!

  13. HeathG
    Posted December 17, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    i think your spam filter ate my comments.

  14. Posted December 17, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    And grand pianos. Someone persists in trying to sell us grand pianos. Truly, the world is an amazing place…

  15. Posted December 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    What about the other things the govt plan to ban? Those that contain “detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act”. Are there to be State-based filters since crimes vary between jurisdictions? Would sites explaining how to conduct civil disobedience or other passive resistance be subject to censorship? What about sites that explain safe drug use?

  16. James
    Posted December 17, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Some erowid pages are already on the blacklist according to Whirlpool posters (because they submitted them). This doesn’t definitively mean they’re RC, but it’s pretty likely.

  17. Robert Merkel
    Posted December 18, 2009 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    I’m disappointed, but not all that surprised, that this has gotten up.

    The ALP has regularly shown itself to have no spine on civil liberties issues. Look at what happens whenever a state police force says it wants additional powers – it’s “would you like tasers with that, Chief Commissioner”.

  18. Posted December 18, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    That’s true, Robert — I’d forgotten the state policing issue, but they’re all of a piece.

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  1. […] that we have a renewed opportunity to persuade the Labor party to drop its ridiculous bid to impose net censorship. As he notes, because of the change in leadership, the party can now back away from previous […]

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