Tear down Australia’s Great Firewall Reef

Kevin Rudd’s Labor government is pushing through a mandatory internet filtering system that rivals China’s severe online censorship.

Guy Rundle

Topics Politics

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‘To those who believe that free speech includes the right to watch child pornography, the federal government respectfully disagrees’ (‘Conroy announces mandatory internet filters to protect children’, ABC News, 31 December 2007).

The speaker was Stephen Conroy, Australia’s new minister for communications, elected when the Kevin Rudd Labor government came to power in November 2007. Conroy was speaking of what has rapidly become the new government’s most controversial policy: a proposal to impose a compulsory internet filtering system on the whole of Australia.

The proposal, variously dubbed the ‘great Australian firewall’ or the ‘great firewall reef’ for a more local touch, mandates a two-level system, both levels of which will be automatically imposed by internet service providers on all connections. One level of the filter will block sites deemed ‘unsuitable for children’, and internet users will have the opportunity to opt out of it. The second level will filter out all content deemed ‘illegal’ by a variety of bodies, and will be mandatory.

The proposal has been part of Labor’s ‘communications platform’ since 2006, although there was little discussion of it in the 2007 election, which was dominated by economic issues and the Iraq war. Since announcing in late 2007 that the policy would be implemented, the government has moved towards introducing a series of trials of the new filters, at the same time as a mass protest movement has begun.

Though the proposal has been variously attacked as unworkable, liable to slow internet speeds to a crawl, the key issue here is that it is utterly repressive: one of the most comprehensive attacks on free speech and an open society since Australia managed to rid itself of one of the western world’s most repressive censorship regimes in the late 1960s.

The second level mandatory filter would work off a list of websites currently used for the voluntary filters provided by the broadcast watchdog the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), and will add the sites blocked by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation, suddenly famous this week for blocking UK access to Wikipedia over a German album cover showing a naked child. In addition there has been confusing and vague discussion of blocking a further ‘10,000 web sites’ that provide content that Senator Conroy dubs ‘inappropriate’. It has been suggested that this mysterious, and obviously arbitrary, figure would cover ‘R18+’ webites hosted from outside Australia – that is, hardcore porn, but also material that has gained an ‘adults only’ rating due to containing substantial violence, drug use, discussion of suicide, and so on.

What is significant is that ‘R18+’ is a legal classification in Australia, designed to exclude minors. However, Australian sites providing R18+ content have to be registered, and while Australian-registered sites would be permitted to pass through the filters, non-Australian sites would not. In other words, ostensibly, a vast amount of material that would be legal to Australians were it to originate in Australia would be blocked online because a government minister deems it ‘inappropriate’.

How this would work remains to be seen, and Electronic Frontiers Australia, the group that defends the civil liberties of computer users in Australia, has already produced a comprehensive report showing how flawed and contradictory the technical proposals for instituting the scheme is. To oversimplify it somewhat, the Rudd government’s proposal is so broad that the only way in which it could be deployed would be along the lines of crude keyword/image filters used by countries such as China, Iran and Turkey. Thus, typing in ‘Kurds’ in Turkey will get you blocked, and a big angry red screen will appear on your computer; the same will happen if you search for ‘Little Miss Muffett’ in Turkey (the nursery rhyme containing the words ‘Little Miss Muffet / Sat on a tuffet / Eating her curds and whey’).

In an attempt to forestall accusations of censorship, the Rudd government has argued that its system will be similar to Scandinavia’s ‘Telenor’ system, which blocks access to a small number of sites identified as criminal enterprises, by specifically targeting their domain server names. However, even this, designed to block, by manual listing, child porn websites, has been abused, with Swedish authorities using it to attack the ‘pirate bay’ file-sharing website.

Labor knows best

The repeated reference to Sweden gives the clue to the strategy that Labor is using to impose this utterly repressive proposal – it is positioning it as a measure of what Labor is willing to do to protect the community at large and to draw on the traditions of social solidarity, etc. The style has been sharpened by extensive contact with British New Labour, and a lot of trading notes about how repressive policies can be sold as a defence of the common good against a few pointyheads. Conroy’s remark equating people who believe in personal freedom with child pornographers is a case in point, a more-or-less literal copy of remarks made by British officials in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, when the question of 90-day detention came up: that ‘getting blown up really interferes with your civil liberties’.

At a time when child pornogrpahy dominates public fears of safety – indeed has become the central image through which people imagine the notion of harm – Australian Labor’s adoption of filtering has a prominent political goal: to outflank the opposition Liberal Party on the question of law and order by adopting an ostensibly social democratic use of public coercion. Adopting a US-style approach of advocating ‘three-strikes’ law and long prison sentences, internet filtering has a clean, technocratic, social-hygiene feel, which Labor can claim as its own.

Furthermore, Conroy is from the conservative Catholic right wing of Australian Labor, a group whose politics have always been defined by social repression in the interests of ‘ordinary people’. The faction departed Labor for 25 years (after which many members of the faction returned to the Labor Party), forming the Democratic Labor Party and allying with the Liberal Party to keep Labor from power for two decades. Based in large labour groups such as the Shop Assistants Union, the faction has spent decades styming censorship abolition, abortion law reform, equal rights for women, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality, among other things. Effectively it is a right-wing party within a Labor host, its politics closer to Italy’s post-fascist Social Alliance party than anything emerging from an emancipatory working-class tradition.

Though its socially repressive agenda was subdued under the centrist Labor governments of the 1980s, the Catholic right got a new opportunity to assert its power with the election of a senator from a Christian conservative start-up party called ‘Family First’. Though Senator Steve Fielding gained only 1.3 per cent of the vote in the proportional system which governs the Australian Senate, he had enough preference deals to get himself elected. Together with an anti-gambling single issue senator and four Green senators, Fielding now has the capacity to help Labor muster sufficient votes to pass legislation.

There is nothing ‘Family First’ about a policy that deprives parents of the right to decide on what comes into their homes via the internet and puts it in the hands of the state instead. But of course, ‘Family First’ is about something else – the imposition of a conservative Christian morality across the whole of Australian society. Though fundamentalist Christianity is a small presence in Australia compared to the US, it is growing in influence among the outer suburbs which swing politically between Labor and Liberal at each election.

Yet for all these contingent factors, what really marks the internet filter scheme is its deployment of the politics of fear in service of the worst aspect of social democratic Labourism: its profound distrust of its people and supporters, and a paternalist disdain for notions of freedom and autonomy. At the core of the Australian internet filtering proposal is the idea of the entire population as inherently criminal until proven otherwise. Added to this, as Kerry Miller argues on spiked today, is a highly prescriptive idea of what content, though legal, is morally edifying, a point at which social conservatism meets up with certain strands of puritanical feminism and the ‘men’s movement’.

What Conroy and Co. don’t seem to have counted on is the degree of opposition that the proposal would generate, and the mass protest movement it would rapidly give rise to, with a broad coalition of activists, cyber and otherwise, attacking it on all fronts, from demonstrations of how utterly random and inadequate filters are, to plain old street protests against the proposal. There’s something amusingly ironic in this – the Rudd government was so eager to summon up the idea of a protean and demonic internet reaching into all areas of life with its dark materials that it didn’t understand that the power of the net was chiefly invested in the added power to create new grassroots initiatives through better, multi-levelled co-ordination and multiple fronts of attack.

In recent weeks, the proposal has started to come apart – and its nakedly repressive character has become more obvious – as leading ISPs have refused to take part in proposed live trials that were due to start this month. When Mark Newton, an engineer at the ISP Internode, criticised the proposal as unworkable and counterproductive on an internet forum, his employer was heavied by Senator Conroy’s staff in an attempt to silence him (1). The filter trials, initially proposed as open and live, will now take place on a closed system, and access to their results will be restricted.

The various claims about the workability of the system proposed are part of the tactical war, of course, but it needs to be pointed out that there is a more important and core claim to be made – which is that freedom of speech has to be defended against the equation of its use with the small amount of criminal behaviour conducted within it, and against the moralising notion that consensual adult images and activities should not be freely accessible lest they cause ‘harm’.

Quite possibly, the great Australian firewall may be the fence at which the various new Labo(u)r movements’ bounding repressive ambition falls – after all, Australia has seen this kind of going on for 10 years in the UK, and people are less likely to be caught out by Australian Labor playing the paedophile card, or by Polly Toynbee-esuqe drivel about freedom being a ‘middle class’ issue.

Both the Greens and the Liberal Party have come out against the legislation, though the latter may well capitulate to its own social conservative wing. Should the Liberals resist that temptation, and the public protest movement gather strength, Labor’s screen dreams may be heading for one almighty crash.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor.

Liberal tyranny on the World Wide Web, by Kerry Miller

‘Digital Natives’ take on censorious Kevin, by Danu Poyner

Read more at spiked issues Australia and Liberties.

(1) Filtering out the fury: how government tried to gag web censor critics, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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