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Conroy will be censoring people, not the internet

By Nina Funnell - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Kevin Rudd has lost thousands of followers in the past week. Twitter followers, that is. When the Federal Government announced its internet censorship plan was set to go ahead, Twitter followers and bloggers launched an immediate viral campaign to withdraw support from the Government.

Earlier this month I attended a conference on internet regulation and filtering, which attracted academics, technology and industry experts, politicians and other major stakeholders in the internet filtering debate.

There was general - if not universal - agreement that the proposed filtering attempt would be an ''epic fail'': surely Communications Minister Stephen Conroy knows how expensive, ineffective and easy-to-circumvent it will be? Surely he realises it will slow down ''the tubes'', crippling industry and making Australia far less competitive in the global marketplace? Surely he would not cave to the pressure exerted by groups like the Australian Christian Lobby? There is absolutely no way, right?


But when the Greens senator Scott Ludlam took the floor, the resolve began to fracture. Ludlam was able to publicly confirm that the results of the trial were in, and that Conroy had already backgrounded the Australian Christian Lobby on them.

We all wanted to know what this meant. Why hadn't Conroy backgrounded all the other major stakeholders? Why was he showing preferential treatment to the Australian Christian Lobby? Why not just release the results to the entire public? After all, it's the public who is footing the bill for all this.

Blogging about this later, I was asked a rather jarring question: "Why exactly is the Australian Christian Lobby considered a stakeholder at all?" The answer, in short, is because its members vote, and because it's risky for governments to defy those who act as (self-appointed) guardians of community standards.

Like all moral crusading groups, the Australian Christian Lobby has its opinions. But so does the rest of Australia. A recent national phone poll that was commissioned by GetUP! found only 4 per cent of Australians want the government to be responsible for protecting children online. Nanny-states are not popular.

Among other things, punters are particularly concerned that there will be very little transparency over what is blocked. This was made apparent in March when an earlier version of the government's blacklist of banned sites was leaked, revealing that the scope of filtering could extend well beyond kiddie porn.

Google has also released a statement condemning the proposed filter, pointing out that it would be "the first of its kind amongst Western democracies".


While debate continues over what - if anything - should be censored and by whom, there is also confusion over what ''Refused Classification'' actually means. According to the academic Kath Albury, the term is misleading as it seems to suggest that it will only apply to content so offensive, vile and illegal that no person should have access to it.

In reality content may also be refused classification if it does not fit neatly into any other category. This means that content depicting people dripping wax, spanking one another or piercing any body part may be rejected.

Similarly a report by the professors Catharine Lumby, Lelia Green, and John Hartley found that Refused Classification also includes socially and politically controversial material such as educational content on safer drug use and euthanasia.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 18, 2009.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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