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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Helen Razer on internet censorship

Helen Razer tells it like it is over here.

At a time when so many people with power and influence appear to place little value on freedom of speech, I'm gratified to see others whom I like and respect coming out in protest. Helen Razer, John Birmingham, John Wilkins, and others have been unequivocal in their opposition to the Australian government's plan to add a new and dangerous layer of censorship to the internet. We have the beginnings of a political movement here. Let's act on it now.

And let's not relax about this for a moment in 2010.

Once more, the federal government may have the best intentions, if it aims only at censoring child pornography (which is already illegal). I'm not so sure of this, mind you, since many of Senator Conroy's rationalisations seem to go a lot further ... but it really doesn't matter. Even if we adopt the most charitable interpretation of the government's intent, the proposed legislation is a potential disaster with long-term ramifications. The proposed system of forcing ISPs to block websites selected by a government agency is a chilling prospect. Once accepted in principle, then actually established, this system allows future censorship of any category of speech that might elicit moral panic from time to time indefinitely into the future - whenever new restrictions might attract votes.

The effect will be to alter the entire playing field. Once the system beds down, politicians will no longer argue about whether internet sites should be censored by such a mechanism. The issue will become which sites - and some political players will seek a wide range of sites and categories. Nothing can stop the potential scope creep of such a mechanism if it is accepted at all. It is obvious that, in the censorious climate which arose last year, thanks to puritans and prudes at all levels of influence in New South Wales, attempts would have been made to get sites with Bill Henson's art photography on the censored list.

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. To the extent that some abortions are illegal, or might become so, Australians might be denied information about this "criminal activity". The same applies to many other activities that are currently illegal, but clearly would not be if the Millian harm principle were applied seriously.

Already, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) wants to extend the proposed censorship mechanism to a broader range of material than the government apparently has in mind. Even if the current government is unwilling to do deals with the ACL - even if it opposes such initiatives on the floor of the parliament - the implications are obvious, should the balance of political power change more in the ACL's favour.

Nothing can be more important than this issue, since it creates a long-term threat to our most fundamental freedom - the freedom that enables us to challenge not only governments but even hardened public opinion. Without freedom of speech, we are helpless against the pressure of conformity and the political attractions of small-minded populism. Censorship must become a key issue in 2010, and we must insist that no political candidate is acceptable unless he or she stands for freedom of speech and against censorship of the internet.

Clive Hamilton, for example, may be enlightened in some ways, but he is a censor, an enemy of free speech. As such, he is unworthy of our vote. Please do not support any party that puts Hamilton forward as a candidate, as the Greens did recently in the Higgins by-election. As long as the Greens use Hamilton as a front man, do not give them your vote. Make it clear to them that Hamilton is a divisive figure whom you do not support.

No "clean feed"!


Laurie said...

Don't agree, Russell. Clive Hamilton is someone we need in our parliaments. His attitude towards restrictions on the internet is simply in line with Greens policies regarding child protection, etc. That he is not libertarian should not worry anyone; he believes there is a place for government intervention in media. I don't know how you'd start disagreeing with that.

Daniel said...

I don't know anything about Clive Hamilton, but why give someone a free pass just because they outwardly support a favourable policy, such as child protection? It's the consequences of this plan that is important, not the intent.

It needs to be made clear to child safety advocates that the filter will be ineffective.

Russell Blackford said...

Laurie, I'd start disagreeing with it by putting arguments as I've been doing.

Luke Vogel said...

Nice post, I find these blogs on censorship fascinating and thought provoking. I'm in U.S., btw.

You may have seen this blog by John Shook from not long ago:

"Only child porn lovers want to fight internet censorship?"


I've read and heard other arguments against censorship, one that sticks out in my mind was a local women's essay read on our NPR station (wamc). She added an interesting twist to the porno dilemma by pointing out we are exaggerating the effects. I think this is true for the most part, we seem to be creating an hysteria and I wonder about the motivations of those which are at the forefront of that.

Personally, I find this difficult. And for me it does rest on how to deal with child pornography. As you note, like here, it is already illegal. However, as with a great many things illegal on the internet, it is easily accessible, widespread and the internet has actually added to the distribution problem (containment and tracking appear illusive unless made obvious by the idiots themselves).

I think the "slippery slope" to which you allude is potentially inherent in censorship legislation. However, tracking, containment etc. with which is illegal and highly volatile like child porn inevitably pushes us towards more intrusive law enforcement.

I stand against such censorship legislation and I fear how my arguments are/will be portrayed on some levels and formulating good arguments now seems appropriate. The women I mentioned earlier weathered a fire storm of protest from listeners on which is recognized as mainly a liberal station.

Anyway. Shall we move into the next decade with confidence (next decade, yikes) and say:

"And let's not relax about this for a moment in 2011."

Luke Vogel said...

Since I've stepped into this already, please pardon me while I expand my ideas a bit further.

Something that seems clear to me is that child pornography in the age of the internet has actually brought this issue to a wider recognition, and thus we are talking about it more. However, I fear the conversation lacks sufficient openness and depth (we can also thank the Catholic church debacle for some of this). At this point it appears to me that the inherent disgust towards such behavior leaves us shallow in our discourse.

I have argued, rather vigorously, that we need to talk about it more directly. Daniel's point that "it needs to be made clear to child safety advocates that the filter will be ineffective" is illustrative that we (or a lot of us out here) need to understand this issue better.

The usual response to my concern gravitates around: "what is there to talk about?" (implying it's understood to be bad, period, end of discussion). Though - one, even if the effects of child rape is potentially more limited than we surmise, it is non-the-less dangerous and on this there is agreement. Two, our inherent disgust is shadowed by the fact a great many men (yes, that's vague and partly due to the very problem I'm highlighting) do find pleasure in child pornography and rape. Three, this to some extent teaches me we are dealing with something that is not as easily tagged, such as music/video downloading, free speech and terrorism/radicalism influences etc.

I'll stay away from a "natural" argument at this time, though to me it's unavoidable. So, better than censorship is to educate ourselves without restraint by our own disgust. In this way perhaps we can recognize better susceptibility to child sexual attraction. Further then, we are allowing these men (the vast majority from my understanding are men) to come forward to discuss their thoughts, both in private without fear of retribution(with a therapist etc.) and in public so we can learn something. Put together with other elements perhaps we can create better ways to confront the issue, because it's simply not going away no matter how we damn it.

While refraining from the "natural" argument, we can't help to recognize that we assume it's natural but wish to advocate avoidance of the behavior. This perhaps fuels what many may see as "safe" outlets for their desire. Hence, we are back to internet accessibility and distribution, that doesn't seem to stem the actual acts taking place. Does it add to child rape? I don't know. Does it fuel the desire of those susceptible, I suggest, yes.

Luke Vogel said...

A short note on this if I may (I apologize for my long winded post and sloppy writing style).

I want to highlight that child porn isn't limited, IMO, to nakedness or sex of/with the child. I discovered this myself from my time torrenting music files. I kept seeing "NN" or "child models", what's striking is my thought that this was limited to the illegal torrneting environment was incredibly naive. It is perfectly legal to have pages of incredibly sexually provocative picture of children who are barely dressed. Much of what I've seen is pornography, wildly inappropriate beyond just child modeling and the problems there. Basically it appears to me "they" have found a legal way to entice the susceptible, IMHO.

Anyway, I could go on I suppose, since the coffee is kicking in. Thanks for allowing to vent.

Daniel said...


I understand the argument you are trying to make. But for me, the issues of child pornography and the proposed filter are completely separate. While it is unclear exactly what "undesirable" content will be blocked by the filter, one thing that most certainly won't be blocked is child pornography. In all my years of wandering all corners of the internet I have not once stumbled upon child porn. It's not just lying around on random web pages. It is not something that is even available on the http protocol that the filter will block. This material is shared on p2p, email, and other networks, even just on individual's hard drives. I repeat: the filter will do NOTHING to prevent access to child pornography by motivated people.

It's vitally important that those who oppose censorship loudly voice their support for child safety, and win allies amongst the safety advocates by explaining that this filter wholly ineffective.

Yes, an open and honest child pornography discussion needs to be had. But not now, not when discussing internet censorship. This is a free speech issue.

Luke Vogel said...


I noted your concern you made in regards to child safety advocates, and it appears we are in agreement on censorship.

~ "This material is shared on p2p, email, and other networks, even just on individual's hard drives. I repeat: the filter will do NOTHING to prevent access to child pornography by motivated people."

The second part I agree with as I note, and the child safety advocates are in a position to know to a greater extent than I.

However, the first part is true, though incomplete I think. It is easily accessible on the internet and can show you, In fact this is not my first go round on this issue.

This distracts, I believe, a bit from my broader concerns, since in fact I state I am apposed to censorship and I wonder if your concern does not reflect my stated concern over how what I say is portrayed.

Luke Vogel said...


~ "Yes, an open and honest child pornography discussion needs to be had. But not now, not when discussing internet censorship."

I agree with the first part, though I tend to disagree on the second and find it an almost unavoidable issue. Part of my argument is to prepare ourselves and the sooner we cut to the chase the better. I totally agree it's a free speech issue, but that is certainly not the totality of the discussion (of course depending on how one is defining the parameters of "free speech").

J. J. Ramsey said...

Any ideas on what non-Australians can do about this?

Russell Blackford said...

One small thing you can do is discuss it on Twitter, using the tag: #nocleanfeed

Also, you can discuss it on blogs, etc. I can't think of anything more concrete. Back at the time of the Communications Decency Act in the US, a lot of people outside the US signed up to the ACLU class action (or whatever it was, technically). I can't think of anything analogous to that.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, and Laurie I gave an inadequate response to your comment. It's true that I have arguments for my position. But my position is not to oppose the proposition "there is a place for government intervention in media". I don't know anyone who opposes that proposition, put so broadly. Even Mill thought that there was a very limited role for government intervention in speech that creates an imminent risk of violence (see the famous "corn dealer" passage in On Liberty). Then there are such issues as media ownership, defamation law reform, etc. I'm not talking about those issues here - I'm talking about a quite specific proposal that seems to me to be very dangerous.

If Clive Hamilton wants my vote, he's going to have to show a lot more concern for free speech issues in general. Relevant to this post, however, he will specifically have to renounce any support for the currently proposed mechanism for censoring the internet.

Daniel said...

You may well be right in saying that this material is freely available online. How then, is this filter proposing to protect children? Are we protecting the children who may fall victim to the pornographers by supposedly reducing the demand? Or are we protecting the innocence of children who may accidentally stumble upon such material? If the former, the filter won't adequately address the plasticity of the internet, and it's ability to re-route around any sort of censorship it interprets as damage. If the latter, the question becomes one of risk: just how likely is it that someone will stumble upon child pornography when not actively searching for it?

Boz said...

When the first link of the chain is forged, the first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, this chains us all irrevocably.

The first time any person's freedom is trodden on we’re all damaged.

Luke Vogel said...


Good points. I suppose you may be correct in seeing to separating the issues for practical reasons. I'm also heartened that you support my idea that we need open and honest discussion on child porn (which I do hope includes some of the other aspects I outlined).

My own argument, upon reflection, actually illustrates how cloudy my approach may make the waters.

So, allow me to think more on this.


Саблезубая said...

Hello! Your post is very interesting for me! I think about the child pornorgaphie very much, but in my opinion all interdiction are not effective.