Another week, another hole appearing in the Rudd government’s plans for pervasive Internet censorship. I’m in Crikey today with a piece headlined So Conroy’s Internet filter won’t block political speech, eh?
“Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there has never been any suggestion that the Australian Government would seek to block political content,” intoned Senator Stephen Conroy on Tuesday.
Yet the very next day, ACMA added a page from what’s arguably a political website to its secret blacklist of Internet nasties.
The page is part of an anti-abortion website which claims to include “everything schools, government, and abortion clinics are afraid to tell or show you”. Yes, photos of dismembered fetuses designed to scare women out of having an abortion. Before you click through, be warned: it is confronting. Here’s the blacklisted page.
The piece goes on to argue that while you may or may not agree with the political stance or tactics of the anti-abortionists, they’re within their rights to express their political views, and express them strongly. The article isn’t behind the paywall, so read on…
The article also quotes Peter Black, who lectures in Internet law at QUT and blogs at Freedom to Differ. The full text of his commentary is over the jump.
The ACMA classifying this anti-abortion website as prohibited content or potential prohibited content highlights several serious flaws inherent in the policy to filter the internet.
First, it is indicative of the difficulty associated with defining “political speech”. Legal scholars, judges and philosophers have wrestled with the boundaries of political speech for centuries, from John Milton to Alexander Meikeljohn, and it ludicrous to suggest that the ACMA or the Government is magically imbued with the ability to determine which websites have an element of political content and which do not. And nor should that be the role of the ACMA or the Government. Citizens in a liberal democracy should be lawfully able to inform themselves on matters that are of political interest of them, and not have the debate framed or restricted by Government classification.
Second, it demonstrates the inflexibility of the classification standards. It is probable that this website does indeed constitute prohibited content or potential prohibited content under the Broadcasting Services Act, but that is only because the definitions in the Act inevitably treat all content in the same way; the same standard applies to political and non-political content.
Third, it is a good example of the dangers inherent in prior restraint. Once a website like this gets added to the blacklist is becomes impossible for Australian citizens to determine for themselves whether this website should be banned or not. The proposed filter means that the public cannot review the decisions made by the ACMA or the Government. This lack of accountability should be very troubling to anyone living in a liberal democracy.
Ultimately the fate of this website is an illustrative example of the dangers inherent in any Government censorship scheme. Issues of political speech, classification and accountability are without doubt both complex and important, and any notion that they can be adequately addressed and balanced by a Government regulator engaging in prior restraint is somewhere between being unbelievably naive and downright dangerous.
I don’t agree with the anti-abortionists. I think their tactics are unnecessarily confrontationist and have the potential to cause psychological harm to vulnerable young women. Nevertheless, they’re entitled to express their political views.
Australian is (supposedly) a Western liberal democracy. We fought and won World War II to defend our freedoms. I may not like my political opponents’ ideas, but suppressing their views, rather than debating and defeating them, is worse. Far worse.