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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Don't go down the Chinese Road

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, the Minister for Telecommunications, Stephen Conroy, has announced that it will be made mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools. The feeds must be free of pornography and what Conroy refers to as "inappropriate material". Conroy brushed aside issues of freedom of speech in what struck me as a cavalier fashion, simply rejecting an equation of free speech with child pornography.

Should we worry?

Well ... to be honest, I'm not so concerned about the immediate impact of this. I'm confident that whatever material gets blocked on Day One will be confined to pretty nasty stuff that morally healthy people don't want to see: child pornography is obviously the main target. That said, it is still a dangerous step.

Once any government starts to control what is or is not appropriate for its citizens to see on the internet, we should all be afraid. How do we know that more and more kinds of content will not be deemed "inappropriate" by this administration (or by future ones if Kevin Rudd and his team seem too touchy-feely to introduce a truly oppressive censorship regime)? Are we really supposed to sit back complacently, and simply trust the good intentions and liberal instincts of present and future governments? Yeah, right.

Admittedly, we have some constitutional protection of political speech in this country, but it's no more than an implied limitation of legislative power, and its scope is much-debated. It does not appear expressly in the wording of the Constitution, and it could easily be weakened or eliminated by future High Court rulings. If that happens, all bets are off. All sorts of material might be "inappropriate" for reasons of state.

I think it's important to acknowledge that there will be an opt-out provision - but of course, a future administration could water down or eliminate this protection. And then there's the issue of who will have access to records of who opted out.

Will such records be available to the government or the police? Will they be able to be used in police investigations? Will it be possible for adverse inferences about individuals to be drawn from them (e.g. by police, bureaucrats, and the courts)?

No matter how well-intentioned this move is, it's a step on the path towards official control of what we can see and read, and every single such step needs to be opposed bitterly. Don't let Australia go down the Chinese Road.


Brian English said...

Hi Russell. How's the year going for you thus far?
Bloody hell. Here we go again. Soon you'll hear the fallacious "people who've done nothing wrong have nothing to fear from this law" as justification. If you argue or opt out, you've probably done something wrong. Big brother is on the march again.

Russell, totally off topic but I'd like your take on this article relating to the mind-brain problem. I think you're not one of the ghost in the machine brigade. Have we got to the point where we accept that the mind is the functioning of the brain? Though not totally reducible to it? Or is there still wiggle room for the soul?

SmellyTerror said...

I'm opting out just on general principles, if they actually get the damn thing working - which I seriously doubt. How the hell do you "block" kiddy porn when it's illegal already? It's not like they have commercial sites. You going to ban all forums? All blogs? All file sharing? If not, then how does the system know what's kiddy porn and what's not?

Looks like one of those easy-promises: no-one who is in a position to notice you did nothing really wanted it or cared anyway. Those who are dead keen for the govmint to "protect the kids" will vaguely assume they did something.

Win win.

Aragon said...

I knew it! Kevin the pro-Christian! I am glad that I voted for Greens.

Say no to Internet repression:


Russell Blackford said...

Brian, that's a big philosophical question you ask. I mean, there is this whole field called Philosophy of Mind that deals with such questions.

As for me, I can't see much scope for an immaterial soul. It's mysterious how the soul gets impaired by brain damage. Of course, there are always responses, however contrived they may seem. For example, perhaps the brain is needed somehow to mediate between the soul and the body, so the soul is somehow stuffed up in communicating with the body (and hence the outside world) if the brain is damaged.

I'm not defending this. It sounds ad hoc to me. But I'm not sure that we can ever drive dualists into a self-contradictory position, as opposed to one that seems in some way ad hoc, or contrived, or whatever.

Russell Blackford said...

^All the above said without yet having read the article.

Brian English said...

Thanks Russell. I've come across dualists with ad-hoc responses just as you described. Parsimony would rule them out, if science shows that the brain is enough to explain what we call the "mind". That was what I was getting at.