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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).

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stephen Conroy has got to go

I've just watched Stephen Conroy's fatuous, giggling performance on the TV show Q & A, in which he essentially refused to take seriously the fact that he is planning legislation that will endanger our most fundamental right - the right to freedom of speech. We must never let an Australian government gain control of the internet and start blocking sites. Conroy argues that there is no current intention to block political sites, but that is not the point.

Let's leave aside the bizarre stories about Russian gangsters taking over the sites of innocent dentists who then get blacklisted by the government. That was sure a great yarn, but, um, minister, if the government knew what had happened, why didn't it at least think to tell the dentist ... rather than just secretly blacklisting his site? Leave aside, too, that at least one PG-rated site was discovered to be on the blacklist. Forget that none of this would have been known if Wikileaks had not leaked the list, and that the PG-rated site would still be blacklisted for its innocuous Bill Henson nudes. Leave aside the fact that many of the blacklisted sites apparently have nothing to do with child pornography. All this is important and rather sinister, but that's not the main point either.

Let's get it clear: this government, which I voted for, as you probably did, too, if you are Australian, is attempting to use technological means to obtain a power that no government should ever have. Once the mechanism is in place, nothing stops it from blocking whatever sorts of material may be attacked in the future by populist opinion.

I'm sick to death of this communications minister; Conroy is a disgrace to the honourable tradition of the Left in Australia. It comes down to this: sack Conroy. Nothing less will do. Start again with a new communications minister.

Conroy has got to go.


Emlyn said...

I don't understand what is driving this particularly onerous censorship drive. Is it Conroy alone? Or is there widespread support throughout the government?

I voted for these guys, but not for them to do this.

Emlyn said...

btw, you can watch the Q&A episode that Russell is referring to here:


Dirk said...

There is an informative episode of Background Briefing (Radio National) on this bit of policy. I reckon it is Right-wing-Rudd's posturing to the Values Voters.

Russell: you should not assume that all your audience are happy ALP voters. Since the unprincipled (and incompetent) preference deal that elected Fielding, we Greens have had to hold our noses in order to even direct preferences to this mob. Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

Russell Blackford said...

Good point, Dirk. The way things are going, I might have to join the Greens myself, or at least start voting for them. Their general political position doesn't really match mine - I'm more a Hawke/Keating kind of guy - but increasingly they are the party that comes closest.

Emlyn said...

I just watched that Q&A episode, and found it illuminating.

I think Steven Conroy believes in what he is doing, and not for weird right wing / religious reasons. If you listen carefully to what he says, you'll notice that he is starting with different axioms than most of the rest of us are.

He was defending the filtering trials as just being the same as what we have for books, movies, etc, and pointed out that this blacklist is a pre-existing thing, part of our regular censorship process (previously unenforced/unenforceable).

Imagine you believed in the current censorship regime. Your premise is something like "there are bad things out there that decent people shouldn't have to see, and it is part of the government's job to sort that out". It's feels anachronistic now, but it's a mainstream conservative position, that comes out of mainstream conservative values. It also relies on some related unspoken assumptions (part of that value system) relating to the importance of hierarchies, respecting authority, maintaining order, that kind of stuff. Jonathan Haidt explains this better than I ever will: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html .

Saying that this is attacking free speech will not impress someone with this value system. You have to hold a politically small-l liberal set of values to care about freedom more than order. He will hear people saying "free speech" and just think "this person doesn't know what is good for them".

What no one articulated in that program were these things:

1. The problem that the government is trying to solve with censorship is indeed a problem, that is not disputed. Things like child pornography are truly bad and wouldn't exist in a perfect world.

2. However, the only way the censorship solution can work is via an unaccountable body doing the censorship on everyone else's behalf (Conroy: "If we published the list, it would defeat the purpose of the list"). We do not trust them to do that job. It's not that we don't trust Steven Conroy, or the current government bodies in this area in particular, it's that no one can be trusted with that job in general. That is the fundamental premise of free speech; not that we want child porn, but that there is no way that we can guarantee censorship without abuse.

3. This censorship push is being partly justified by saying "it's just more of the same, same as with movies, books, games". What needs to be clearly articulated here is that we don't believe in that, either. There is no more reason to trust censors with books and movies than with the internet.

So this, I believe, is an old-school liberal vs conservative clash. They believe we need to be protected from ourselves, we say no one can be trusted with that job, particularly anyone who volunteers for it! All the stuff about slowing down the internet, we'll just be able to circumvent it anyway, etc etc, is a sideshow.

I'd like to see opposition to the filtering grow, knock out the filtering push, then roll on into knocking out censorship in this country altogether.

Russell Blackford said...

One thing that we're finding in this debate is that there's far more support Out There for freedom of speech than might at first be apparent. But it's not as well-organised as a lobby as all the lobbies wanting to prohibit speech of one kind or another.

Another thing we're finding out is that there's more censorship already going on than most people (including me) realised, and more than a lot of us are comfortable with.

We need a major political debate about freedom of speech in this country. So far, though, the mass media aren't paying a lot of attention. I've seen nothing in the press about Conroy's performance on Thursday night. If it's been covered at all, it's been on a small scale.

Kel said...

Agreed that Conroy has to go. When it was first suggested that it would be an opt-out system, I had reservations but figured that I could get out of it if need be. Opt-in would be preferable, as the latter is essentially writing your name on a pervert list. I was quite annoyed after the election when I found out that the opt-out isn't really an opt-out, that it's just slightly less censorship.

Nothing about the plan to do this sits right, and I really hope that the only reason they are persisting with it is to save face in spite of huge negative public opinion about the plan.

Emlyn said...

A final note:

We don't trust the censors with censorship. They don't trust us without it.

shonny said...

Is it that the government wants more control over the internet because they now have seen what eminent political apparatus it can be?

Never voted when living in Australia, but Labor was definitely the lesser of two evils, but that doesn't include Bob Hawke and many of his cronies.
Keating yes, but then again, he was really too classy for Australia.