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.