Seminar on Aussie ‘net censorship-New Matilda

May 14, 2009

The More Untangled the Web Becomes…


New Matilda: May 8, 2009’s forum in Sydney on Tuesday night brought together some divergent commentators on the Federal government’s proposed mandatory internet filter. The aim of the forums to some extent has been to broaden participation in the debate by trying to reach an audience beyond the articulate online community and to examine how the arguments are framed both for and against internet regulation. Of course the discussion draws on the well-documented concerns about filtering the internet, which centre on censorship, civil liberties, technical failure, and ineffectiveness to meet cyber-safety objectives.

The event was chaired by David Vaile, CEO of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre. The Parliamentary “host” (who secured the venue for the event) was Penny Sharpe, MLC. Penny weighed into the discussion later with some insights about how much (or little) MPs might know or understand about the proposed filter. She also presented some good examples of “young people” at risk, by talking about the online activities of her 10-year old daughter.

Geordie Guy, a board member with Electronic Frontiers Australia, set the scene with an overview of the clean feed proposal and recent developments from Labor’s election promise to what we know about the current blacklist.

Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party gave a brief history of “adult” content classification in the federal and state law and policy context. Fiona reminded us that before Don Chipp waived his magic anti-censorship wand at all the old fogeys in Parliament in the early 1970s, we lived in a very prudish nanny state. It was his efforts that opened up debate and saw the then list of prohibited (print) content made public. Meanwhile, a rapidly changing entertainment media set the pace for consecutive governments to try to regulate access to “adult” content. Fiona went on to trace the path of many versions of legislation that have since been drafted, defeated, modified, passed, or have perennially resurfaced in the hands of different MPs. She also related examples about the role and some successes that the adult entertainment industry lobby had had in protecting civil liberties and individual choice.

Fiona called on political parties to propose the sort of censorship laws that their stated philosophies would logically promulgate, citing aspects of the Labor’s National Platform and several examples of “off the record” conversations with MPs who admitted they were personally open-minded but genuinely concerned about the vocal 3 or 5% of their constituency that was vehemently opposed to pornography.

Kerry Graham spoke as CEO of Inspire Foundation whose work with children and young people, in the field of mental health, is done exclusively online. Kerry’s presentation pointed to a generation gap and emphasized a need for an examination of the way we frame discussion about “young people” and the internet at the public, adult and policy-making levels. She suggested that from the outset that we need to see the internet as a setting for young people – in the same way as a school is a setting. While for most older adults, activity online is quite separate from experiences offline, for young people, according to Kerry Graham the separation is not so clear.

Kerry argued that if the proposed clean feed is a response to assertions that children are at risk when they are online, then we need to reposition young people themselves at the centre of the debate. In this context, she said, it is important to understand how children and young people actually use the net and manage their lives online and offline. It seems like a distinction also needs to be drawn (within the debate) between children (under 10s or Penny Sharp’s kid) and young people (teens and those who use Inspire’s services). Kerry quoted both US and Australian research that shows that the opportunities and benefits of online social interaction far outweigh the risks for children and young people. The research also demonstrates that young people self-regulate pretty well and that families manage net filtering in their homes pretty well. She concluded by observing that we should be arguing for government regulation that is based on actual research and evidence.

The conversation on the night highlighted a few gulfs in this debate. There is the generation gap between adults – parents, lawmakers – and their children – those for whom the laws are ostensibly being made. Then there is a communication gap between tech-savvy people (programmers, engineers, geeks, technologists etc) who implicitly understand the filter proposal and those for whom installing a filter constitutes a technological triumph. Penny Sharpe also highlighted a significant difference in comprehension between those who understand (with some clarity) the concerns that a mandatory filter poses and Australia’s average State or Federal MP.

Which leaves plenty to work with as far as opposing a “clean feed” goes. It seems that to win the debate, those opposing the clean feed need to properly engage with the concerns of sincere people – parents, lawmakers among them – who are never going to be technically savvy and possibly won’t be concerned about civil liberties either. If people need to be offered other reasons to oppose the plan – it looks like research, evidence and a plain(er) English explanation of concerns with the proposal is still required.

Stilgherian’s live blog of the forum can be found here.

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