About Me

My photo
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).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

No clean feed

Australia's federal government has decided to introduce legislation that will give it potentially sweeping control of information available to Australians via the Internet, using a system of technologically-based censorship. As announced, the legislation will require all ISPs to block material that has been refused classification in other countries (one might ask exactly which countries the government has in mind here). An "independent" body, so we are told, will determine which sites are rated as RC for "refused classification".

Although the government has said that this initiative is not intended to curtail freedom of speech, that is surely an Orwellian claim. Even if the speech that is initially blocked has very little social value, an initiative such as this is open to abuse. If successful, it will enable future censorship of whatever categories of speech might elicit moral panic from time to time indefinitely into the future. Legislatures will have free rein to prevent Australians from viewing categories of material on the Internet whenever this suits populist expediency.

Over time, we could see any number of categories of websites added to the list - gambling sites, sites engaging in robust debate over religious issues, sites advocating the legalisation of euthanasia or certain drugs. Once it's established that we have such a system, the question of which material will or will not be filtered out becomes a live political one, with the potential for future political platforms that involve quite sweeping bans, on the basis of any of the great variety of views as to what is good for us. All sorts of moralising nannies will vie for political power and influence, attempting to control what we are allowed to read and see.

Already, we see a certain amount of jockeying by individual politicians to get additional categories of websites - such as legal gambling sites - banned. The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace has issued a statement claiming the government's report has "proven the technological principle [of filtering] can be extended to deal with other harmful X and R-rated material on the internet."

There is no limit to the ways in which the proposed system could be expanded as the electoral cycles roll on, and there is certainly no known limit to the kinds of material that can produce panic in the press and the community, as we saw last year when some relatively innocuous artistic photographs by Bill Henson became a focus for absurd controversy. There is infinite scope for "scope creep". Once an initiative like this gets started, no short-term reassurances can be relied upon. Nobody can know where the new censorship system might be driven over time by the many varieties of populists, moralists, and well-meaning (but misguided) paternalists that proliferate in all electorates. It has to be stopped in its tracks right from the beginning.

This frightening development powerfully underscores the need for some mechanism that inhibits the powers of governments in Australia to interfere with the speech and expression of Australian citizens. If, for political reasons, it is out of the question to introduce new constitutionally-entrenched limits on government power to abridge freedom of speech in Australia, then another mechanism must be found if at all possible. Meanwhile, I urge my readers to join in protests against this development. Please oppose it using all legal and peaceful means available.


NewEnglandBob said...

I agree with you Russell, this is not good at all. It is the first step down a long slippery slope.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, and while we need to be cautious about slippery slope arguments there are very clear mechanisms in this case that can drive us down the slope.

mace said...


Yes,definitely a sinister development,censorship starts for all the "right" reasons and continues for all the wrong reasons.I agree,it's easy to foresee all kinds of Harradine-style bargains made in the Senate, with ratbag minority representatives, by the Government, in order to get legislation through.
The slope would not be so slippery if we had a proper Constitutional Bill of Rights.