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Framing the internet filter debate

The decision by Australia’s Department of Broadband to test and deploy a mandatory internet content filter had netizens up in arms at home and abroad throughout 2009, but some of the nuances got lost in the debate, writes Michela Ledwidge.

Minister for Broadband, Steven Conroy earned himself an “Internet Villian of the Year” award from the UK Internet Industry Association "for continuing to promote network-level blocking despite significant national and international opposition".

Even Google, which filters search results in China, issued a press release that condemned the policy. Over 120,000 people signed GetUp!’s “Save The Net” campaign yet moves to implement the policy continued unabated. It seems virtual reality is alive and well in Australia. 

While hordes of irate Twitter users (Twits?) debated what hashtag to use to describe the issue (“#nocleanfeed”, “#openinternet”…) many more people who live the majority of their lives offline wondered what all the fuss was about.

Why were the nerds advocating filth? Surely this was a no-brainer. Protecting children = good. Child pornography = bad. According to mainstream press coverage, the issue was black and white. Participants in the debate were either for or against protecting the innocent.

Of course, it was never that simple but the howls of anger from net users had little effect. The debate settled into a rigid pro-censorship frame. Subtleties of the issue did not translate well into laypeople’s terms. What is a hashtag anyway? By the end of the year, Twitter was dismissed as an echo chamber on the issue as people preached and griped to the converted. In all the noise, two points were lost in the debate. 

Firstly, the general public was left in the dark. For all the rhetoric about protecting children and the importance of the “digital economy”, Conroy’s department provided no additional resources for parents to understand the issues better themselves. Key issues such as the ease with which internet censorship can be circumvented (e.g. using free software like Tor and Freenet) remained a subject for only experts to debate. 

Secondly, the distinction between Mandatory and Opt-In filtering was avoided or glossed over in general public discussion, which left civil liberties considerations around choice, transparency and accountability at the fringes of the debate. 

What was behind the moves to implement this policy? Was it a cynical exercise in appeasing minority interest groups such as the Christian lobby? Was the whole policy a straw man - designed to appease these groups in the knowledge that it would be torn down long before legislation needed to be passed?

Without any evidence, this could explain why the Government spent so little time seeking to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Perhaps the weaknesses in the Government’s case for a filter were deliberate. But at what cost?

Perhaps this was an exercise in aligning values with the governments of trading partners in the region (e.g. China). Either way it seemed to be politics for politics sake. 

As Senator Kate Lundy (Australian Labour Party) wrote in her blog last month

Unfortunately, the debate about whether reducing the risks of people being exposed to unwanted online content through mandatory filters outweighs the value people place on the concept of an open and unfiltered internet was resolved by the Rudd government before the last election, when the policy was announced.  

In other words, the political party in power is more beholden to back-room decisions made three years ago than to the electorate. 

Regardless of motivation, the Australian Government has left itself open to accusations that it manipulated the debate. This will no doubt be read by proponents of Post-Civilization theory as yet another sign that governance of this sort is unsustainable.

More than one commentator noted the similarity in tone to the way the previous Australian Government disregarded anti-war protests. This might prove to be business as usual for the Australian Government but in 2010 the electorate is more connected than ever and data is piling up.

As internet access moves up alongside other household utilities like water and electricity to be counted as a standard service provision, the true cost of this exercise will be calculated.

Michela Ledwidge (@michela) is an artist, entrepreneur and technologist. She is the founder of production company MOD Films and teaches Remixable Media at the University of Sydney.


0 #2 Mike Fitzsimon 2010-01-25 18:38
The was
0 #1 Mike Fitzsimon 2010-01-25 18:37
You're correct, Michaela, about mainstream mums & dads missing the censorship message entirely.

I've tried to do my bit with letters to the editor in mainstream media using non-technical language, eg,

I've even tried to give geeks tools to help communicate the message*

The was Labor has treated one of the significant demographics that helped its election (tech-savvy young people) with utter contempt.

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