Welcome to National Censorship Day

Conroy's blind adherence to his net filtering plan will abandon net neutrality ideals and push ISPs down a slippery slope of unprecedented responsibility for a callously politicised Australian internet.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

As far as sick political jokes go, Minister Stephen Conroy has come up with a real doozy: 15 December, after all, marks the 218th anniversary of the passage of the US Bill of Rights, those 10 amendments to the US Constitution whose most fervently defended is the right to freedom of speech.

Could there be a more ironic day, then, for Conroy to release the long-awaited Enex Test Laboratory report, then announce that his ill-advised blacklist policy is far from dead, and that he'll introduce legislation to make ISPs filter all internet traffic according to a secret, government-managed blacklist?

I don't know whether Australians will celebrate 15 December as National Censorship Day in the future, but perhaps we should: black armbands could be standard issue to commemorate the death of technological determinism and intellectual self-regulation, and the establishment of Labor's internet police state.

Yes, folks: after months of hemming and hawing in which the optimistic among us thought he was looking for a way to save face after being hit by a lightning bolt of common sense, Minister for Censorship Stephen Conroy has put legislative grunt behind his misguided web censorship policy, putting the country's entire ISP industry on a slippery slope that will start in 2011 and has no clear end.

Minister for Censorship Stephen Conroy has put legislative grunt behind his misguided web censorship policy, putting the country's entire ISP industry on a slippery slope that ... has no clear end.

If you think I'm being a bit extreme, consider for a minute. Despite widespread protests, general public and industry condemnation, repeated hacker attacks, and the utter embarrassment of the leaked blacklist fiasco, Conroy's decision to proceed with mandatory content filtering shows his absolute refusal to back down from a policy that nobody particularly wanted in the first place.

More importantly, it imposes an unprecedented new level of responsibility on ISPs to control the content they pass to users. This change flies in the face of the conventional (and entirely reasonable) arguments you've all heard a thousand times before: that we don't charge Telstra with monitoring phone calls for terrorist activities, that we don't expect Australia Post to read all our mail before delivering it.

The biggest worry about the pending censorship regime is not just the banning of child pornography sites that we all agree are blights on human morality and shouldn't exist anyway. It is not the utter technological futility of the effort, the misguided waste of resources, or the discontinuation of the more human-friendly NetAlert program, which at least empowered Australians with the tools to block even more objectionable content.

It's not even the sneaky way in which Conroy – after months in which he refused to release the Enex Test Laboratory censorship technical report – has fallen back on typical political tools by introducing legislation a week before Christmas, when he hopes public furore will be quickly diluted by Australia's collective vacation mentality and thoughts of hot, soporific summer days at the beach.

Nor is it even the coincidental release of a government discussion paper that will finally put the long-suffering issue of an R18+ rating for video games on the table. By slipstreaming the net censorship legislation in behind the excitement about the possibility of a proper game censorship regime, Conroy can only have been aiming for maximum distraction.

Whatever the method by which it was announced, the biggest damage from Conroy's step towards censorship is that it totally changes the operating rules for ISPs that have for nearly two decades operated at a relative arm's length relationship from the content they carry. Now, ISPs are legally obligated to filter Refused Classification content – and to offer, as Conroy put it, "optional filtering … to block additional content as requested by households". That's a whole new can of worms: if I want all web pages mentioning Pete Doherty, for example, banned, does that mean my ISP needs to give me my own custom feed?

The government is setting a dangerous precedent that can only lead to further oppressive requirements on ISPs down the track ... being an ISP just became a more dangerous occupation than ever.

By imposing a responsibility to filter content, the government is setting a dangerous precedent that can only lead to further oppressive requirements on ISPs down the track.

What kind of requirements? Consider the ongoing court case between the recording industry and iiNet, which will have a major impact on copyright policy and the obligations of ISPs. Now, consider the ongoing hush-hush global copyright negotiations – to which Conroy must certainly be a party – that threaten oppressive penalties for copyright infringement.

If Conroy is successful in forcing ISPs to filter objectionable content en masse, and Western governments are pushing towards tighter copyright controls, it is not a big step to assume that the scope of the filtering requirement will quickly be expanded to turn Australia's ISPs into copyright police. Conroy even hinted that this would be possible when he conceded months ago that the censorship regime could be extended to patrol BitTorrent content.

Make no mistake about it: being an ISP just became a more dangerous occupation than ever. Regardless of whether filtering is technically possible – and many will argue in coming weeks that the results of a small technical trial won't extrapolate meaningfully to the entirety of Australia's internet traffic – the philosophical approach is worrying.

In other Western democracies, ideas about net neutrality are being espoused or implemented at the highest level. The kind of filtering Conroy is implementing would never even be contemplated in a country like the US, where constitutionally-protected freedom of speech is sacrosanct.

Heck, net neutrality was even a platform of Barack Obama's election policy. Yet in Labor's Australia, where every right comes with a corresponding caveat and operating freedoms seem to come and go with the political wind, net neutrality is being thrown out the window for the sake of a few fringe elements.

Perhaps those are the same fringe elements whose support Conroy needs to railroad through the very necessary NBN legislation; in this case, we can consider the new legislation both the necessary price to pay for a proper broadband infrastructure, and a failure of representative politics that has seen Conroy pushed to political compromise that favours the interests of the few rather than the interests of the many.

Spock wept, and so would the authors of the US Bill of Rights and their philosophical peers. And, of course, so will many others in the telecommunications industry, as new government policy saddles ISPs with unprecedented obligations and politicises Australia's internet forever.

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