Internet censorship in Australia ramps up

I'm posting this on my American blog because the Australian government, through the Australian Communications and Media Authority is fining people on Australian sites who give the links below the fold $11,000/day. Pretty well everything I feared about censorship by the internet filter and heavy handed government action is coming true.

First of all, it transpires that only one bureaucrat at ACMA is required to block and ban a site, with no further oversight or redress. Second, it turns out that yes, ordinary and popular pornography sites are being blocked, so that if the filter becomes mandatory, these legal sites will effectively become censored for no apparent reason (other than political whim or special privileges). Thirdly, the whistleblower site Wikileaks is blocked by the ACMA blacklist. Oddly, I am now finding that it is taking too long to access. It was fine a while back. They have listed the blacklist there. If anyone can send a copy to me (encrypted please), I'd be very interested to see what they are filtering out. I don't like Star Chambers.

Crikey has an excellent discussion up right now on why this is wrong:

Like New Labour in the UK, the ALP has now abandoned that [civil liberties movement], for a number of reasons. Once it committed itself to neoliberal economics ("social capitalism") Labo(u)r became freaked about the social dissolution and rupture, the desocialisation created by turning the polis into a giant market of winners and losers. The tough answer to this is genuine social democracy, in which people have a social being not entirely defined by whether they're a "winner" or a "loser". The easy answer is to let the market rip, allow it to change the culture, and then seek to control and reshape people's behaviour, selling it to them as "protecting the many against the few".

Politically, this also serves as a way of outflanking the Right on the law and order issue, with a distinctive centre-left twist. The Right can talk about "throwing away the key", "three strikes", etc, sounding increasingly olde-worlde, while Labour can offer filters, ASBOs, CCTVs and so on, portraying themselves as both cutting-edge, high-tech, and hardline. And any objection concerning an open society from within its own ranks can be dealt with by reference back to the way in which "rights stopped Labour achieving real change" -- high courts striking down tax laws etc etc.

The result -- a party committed to a timid shadow of social democracy, waging a foreign imperial war, and trialling a world-standard setting system of secret censorship is obviously a force that is neither progressive, nor politically liberal nor left in any sense of the terms, and which has jumped wholly across to a space on the reactionary right (some might argue it always was, save for the period between the 60s and 90s, but that's a historical discussion).

I am very angry. This is not the Australia I like, nor is it one I will acquiesce in. I can only repeat what I wrote on my local blog:

Yes, I object to the fact that clean feeds are impracticable, will degrade internet performance, and not do what they set out to do (which is protect children), but fundamentally the main reason for not adopting them is that it gives power to governments and their instruments to decide sub rosa what we can and cannot see. Suppose that the present government and all the members of the department of telecommunications are exemplary individuals who not only have our best interests at heart, but do so intelligently and effectively. Can we guarantee that the next government, or a much later bureaucracy, will consist of these people? Not at all, which is why checks and balances are a crucial aspect of democratic government.

And I do not trust this government. They have made way too many religiously-based noises about what is and is not permissible in public. This is to my mind only the thin edge of the constant presumption of religious organisations and culture that they may rightly interfere with other citizens' behaviours, whether they are of that religion or not. That the balance of power is held by a religious political candidate in the Senate is only the tip of that iceberg.

We are a secular nation! It's in our constitution. We do not arrange our public polity on the basis of what suits pastors and cardinals and imams. We do so on legal principles of liberal democracy. For this reason, people are calling for our representatives to oppose the movement coming out of Islam to protect religions against "defamation" speech. Religions have no rights to not be offended by the behaviours of those who are not in their community (and no rights to impose upon their members by legal or other force the views of the hierarchy). And the very idea of handing to potentially religiously motivated censors the power to control what we read, see and hear is just frightening.

I'm not impressed either by the constant refrain by the minister and his allies that to oppose the clean feed is to support child pornography and abuse. Of course I do not. This is exactly the argument that George Bush's administration used to take away civil rights of thousands - if you oppose us you support terrorism. One can be vehemently opposed to child abuse, and terrorism, without wanting to grant unsupervised people unfettered rights to control us. Child porn is illegal - so use the frigging laws to prosecute child pornographers. Give the police the resources they need. There are sufficient criminal investigative powers and laws under which such activities may be prosecuted - you don't need to treat us all as criminals to do so. I think the reason why Labor are so hot for the clean feed is that they really don't want to give the police the resources and to manage them. It's so much easier to simply make other people, the ISPs in this case, stop the porn. Make it their problem and it's no longer yours.

So by all means point out the practical difficulties, but even if you have the perfect means, I am not sure the ends are justified, and I certainly want judicial, community and user oversight on what gets censored and why. And I want a redress system for those incorrectly included (which must include damages - if the authorities don't have to pay for their mistakes, then they'll be a lot less careful). And I also want prosecutorial avenues for those who do abuse this system. Put all that in place, and you may convince me of the rightness of this approach. But leaving it in the hands of Labor or Conservative party hacks who have obligations to religious figures who may have helped them get into power? No way. That takes us back to the Bad Old Days of Mannix. Learn from some history...

Later: Yes, it seems Wikileaks has been blocked by Primus.

Much later note: Wikileaks is back up, so ti looks like a normal outage, maybe traffic based.

Very much later: The Grauniad is reporting that Wikileaks was taken offline for a while. It is now back up. Also read this piece at Dangerous Intersection, which adds some wisdom and much needed outrage.

More like this

Are other ISPs blocking too?
I can't seem to get that particular site and I am not with Primus.


I'm with Internode, but I can't get to Wikileaks either.

Any goodwill that I had for this Government has evaporated.

By John Morales (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

If that list is the right one, there are several ordinary porn sites and one on euthanasia being blocked. It is a pretty disgusting list, but nobody ever denied that. What is at issue is that the list lacks any apparent systematicity.

I'm so pissed off about this, I wish I could take my vote back. I'm hoping Conroy is about to be grilled on the 7:30 Report.

I had never before heard of wikileaks, but I can't access it either. And I'm nowhere near Australia.

By A European who… (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

I'd appreciate all the non-Australians out there to spread the list far and wide on as many websites/newsgroups etc as possible so Australians have some hope of knowing what the Australian government has deemed 'inappropriate' for its own citizens.

By The Raven (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

That list is absolutely terrifying. Encyclopedia Dramatica, seriously? There's a lot of other random stuff in there. Very, very scary.

I get through to wikileaks either (I'm in Brisbane), but the 'European who can't get to Wikileaks' can't either so maybe the site is down for maintenance, or something. I'll try again some time tomorrow.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

But at least y'all can still access the extraordinary and unpopular porn sites, right? The ones without the wallabies?

I don't like Star Chambers.

Her latest video is really hot!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

This is horrifying stuff. My concern for the rights of Australians is exceeded only by the knowledge that a great number of other wannabe totalitarian governments - including mine - are doubtless watching this whole thing, hoping it will work so that they too can impose their notions of decency on their populace.

The nightmare I have is that one day the world will look back wistfully to the days when the Internet was free.

By Chris Davis (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

To be truthful, Australia has always had a rather draconian set of censorship laws, which have been tempered largely because the operation of that law has been done in public. This is the same thing without the oversight. They learned from the past.

Pierce, you are a sick, sick, funny man.

Got into Wikileaks this morning. My ISP obviously isn't part of the trial. I've already got landline speeds (cause I haven't gone to broadband yet), so this will really stuff up my internet experience, if they manage to get it through the Senate.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

I just wish this legislation would die already. I can understand the government wanting to save face and look like it's protecting working families (so parents don't have to raise kids themselves) but everything about this filter is bad. It'll slow down our net speeds, block legitimate content, be ineffective to block illegitimate content, and both the population and the businesses are dead against it. It's not going to work, it cannot work, yet they'll persist with it until it's demonstrated to be completely infeasible - at which point they can withdraw it while saving face. For them to pull out now would only show them as being populist, and that's really no way for a government to run. If they wanted an opt-in filter, great. I'm all for that, let people decide whether they want the technology for themselves. But to make it opt-out where opting out isn't really opting out is a push towards a nanny state. Though it's no real surprise, this is the country where showing sexually explicit genital contact is considered too extreme for viewing.

I'm posting this on my American blog because the Australian government, through the Australian Communications and Media Authority is fining people on Australian sites who give the links below the fold $11,000/day.

Shit. They can do that? I mean, forget about restricting access to kiddie porn, they're now actively stifling political debate?

I repeat: Shit.

By konrad_arflane (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

Interestingly enough I can get to wikileaks, from my Australian public service job :P

What happens if you link to a site that links to a site? If they just enforce immediate links you can get around it with a redirect. Or if it goes through multiple links how many? And you would get the classic problem of starting looking at Persian history on wikipedia, and ending at suspension bridges.
I wonder what the shortest rout between the department of interweb censorship and illegal porn is?

People can mock the US all the want, and often it is intensely mockable, and yet there's one thing to remember here; any government in the US that actually tried to fine someone for publishing such a "secret" list would quickly find itself in Federal Court, paid for with great glee by ACLU, and, in short order, the whole thing would topple.

I only wish countries like Australia, or like my own, Canada (which does have a bill of rights enshrined in its Constitution, but enough wiggle room to allow politicians to play some dangerous games), had something as uncompromising as the First Amendment.

By Aaron Clausen (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

I am unconcerned about the form of such a right - as a Bill, Constitutional Amendment, or Stasi decisis precedent, so long as it is there. We recently had a presumption of privacy by judicial decision based on an "interpretation" of the Constitution, so even that would suit me.

The First Amendment is a good thing, although clever politicians can always do an end-run around it.

This legislation is truly frightning, however it does not surprise me in the least that a Labor Government and particulaly Kevin Rudd is introducing it. Since the beginning of time Labor Governments have always wrapped the population up in cotton wool and created nanny states, this legislation being no exception. Although I have not seen Wikileaks, I read on The Age website that the list includes Euthanasia websites, this is outrageous that the Labor Government is blocking these. It also included links to Satanic and cult religions, again disgraceful, if this was Christianity or Islamic sources being filted there would be a public uprising and rightly so. This Government must be voted out next election.

"...or Stasi decisis precedent"

Wilkins, you are one sick, sick, funny man.

By Porlock Junior (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

What can be done about this? I'm an American and I'm baffled. Will Australians vote out this government? Is there a decent alternative to Labour? Can this be challenged in the courts? Will Australians have to resort to Tor? Are there other avenues I'm not thinking of?