commentary The Federal Government's planned internet filter has reignited the debate over how best to maintain civil liberties while simultaneously protecting children and other vulnerable members of the community from inappropriate and potentially harmful material.
Canon Dr Ray Cleary
(Credit: Anglicare Victoria)
Whether or not one reads more sinister or potentially controlling aims into the proposal depends upon your point of view. Just how interventionist governments should be to protect the vulnerable in our community is a very grey area. But when the proposal is framed in the context of protecting children or addressing terrorism most people will find it politically difficult to argue against the basic premise of the plan.
Civil libertarians, however, fear government censorship of such material is the thin edge of the wedge, while others point out the ease with which even children can bypass filters within seconds in a variety or ways (Google it to find out how).
But while debate rages across internet chat groups, blogs and forums about the merits and dangers of government filtering, we should pause and reflect on why, as a society, we need protection and whose responsibility it is to provide that protection.
Some commentators may fear an over-regulated nanny-state or Big Brother scenario, but I fear too many Australians are coming to rely on government restrictions in place of family and community values and expectations.
We demand a progressive democracy, but are shying away from the responsibility of ensuring those around us exercise their rights conscientiously without being exploitative or degrading of other members of the community.
There are countless examples of the sexualisation of children through the media, including the recent traumatic radio stunt involving a 14-year-old girl being interrogated live-to-air about her sexual history. The young girl's statement that she had been raped at age 12 made the stunt a scandal. If not for that revelation, however, the segment very likely would have passed without community backlash.
I fear too many Australians are coming to rely on government restrictions in place of family and community values and expectations.
Dr Ray Cleary
The recent racist comments directed towards asylum seekers and students from overseas, which appeared on Facebook, is another example of inappropriate behaviour that has no place in a civilised society.
We can't demand this kind of "entertainment" or perpetuate racist and inciting behaviour yet bemoan the range of sexual or explicit material easily available through the internet at the same time.
Parents and community leaders have a responsibility to be good role models and to exercise control over the type of content accessed by those in their care. While parents cannot watch over their child's shoulder 24 hours a day, they can educate their children, share their interests, discuss their concerns and lead by example.
Our failure to do so has led to the government attempting to intervene. It is a sobering and embarrassing fact that the proposed filter will be the first of its kind in a western democracy.
But is it the right solution? The available evidence suggests it is not as there is the growing recognition that filters do not work. People who want to find access will find a way.
For a start, it will not filter peer-to-peer material, it will not help parents control under-age access to legal R-rated pornography and, significantly, it may block what might be considered "false positives", such as safe forums where people discuss issues that involve explicit details.
A recent report by Professors Catharine Lumby, Lelia Green and John Hartley found "material that could feasibly be deemed RC on the basis of the current Classification Code includes:
- A site devoted to debating the merits of euthanasia in which some participants exchanged information about actual euthanasia practices
- A site set up by a community organisation to promote harm minimisation in recreational drug use
- A site designed to give a safe space for young gay men and lesbians to meet and discuss their sexuality in which some members of the community narrated explicit sexual experiences
- A site that included dialogue and excerpts from literary classics such as Nabokov's Lolita or sociological studies into sexual experiences, such as Dr Alfred Kinsey's famous Adult Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male
- A site devoted to discussing the geopolitical causes of terrorism that published material outlining the views of terrorist organisations as reference material."
Many, including myself, would argue that while the content mentioned above is not appropriate for children, it should not always be blocked, and may in fact serve a purpose in stimulating debate in a healthy democracy. It would be heavy-handed and retrogressive, therefore, to impose such a broad filter.
It is a sobering and embarrassing fact that the proposed filter will be the first of its kind in a western democracy.
Dr Ray Cleary
Senator Stephen Conroy defends the filter and claims it is "just one part of a range of measures designed to make the internet a safer place". But questions remain. If there is to be a filter on selected subject matter such as child pornography what are the safety nets and accountability structures in place to prevent present and future governments censoring a range of political views, opinions and expressions which they find politically unacceptable or enabling them to track what individuals are looking at or accessing.
Senator Conroy is right in suggesting we need a multi-pronged response to inappropriate material. I'm just not sure the filter should be one of those prongs.
Canon Dr Ray Cleary is the CEO of Anglicare Victoria and the chair of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee. His comments on the internet service provider level filter are published here with his permission.