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Freedom and the internet

17 April 2009 1,223 views No Comment

Stephen Conroy’s campaign to ‘flush the internet’ is ill-conceived and already old hat, says Ross Fitzgerald — and it is backfiring on Labor

In this great brown land, the whiff of private parliamentary polling is in the air again and although Kevin Rudd’s personal approval rating may be high, that’s not where Labor should be pointing its fortune-tellers. The crystal ball should be aimed at Independents and Greens in the Senate. Judging by the astonishing amount of ill will that Senator Stephen Conroy is generating for his internet filtering proposals, this is where Labor’s vote could really bleed in the event of an early federal election.

At the next caucus meeting, Rudd needs to introduce some mandatory internet viewing of his own.

One of the most hilarious and insightful viral video-clips I’ve seen has hit the internet and Team Rudd needs to view it. The clip shows a cleverly re-subtitled scene from the film ‘Downfall’ in which Adolf Hitler is told by his generals that the war is lost. Instead of taking the advice and accepting the obvious, Hitler launches into a maniacal tirade against the generals, the troops and the German people. He then retreats into his fantasy world of an all-conquering Deutschland and ‘how it was meant to be’. The makers of this potent satire have cast Conroy in the role of Hitler and the subtle jibes at the way Labor’s factions work makes it clear that the creators are most likely either Get Up staffers or Labor apparatchiks.

For the clip, see http://tinyurl.com/cg3jzy.

The problem for Labor, which the clip alludes to, is that Stephen Conroy inherited the policy of ‘flushing the internet’ from Kim Beazley. When Beazley was federal Labor leader, he was reading polls that showed a large majority of Australian parents were very concerned about the amount of offensive material that their children could be exposed to on the internet. Despite his amiable nature, Big Kim was very much his father’s son on moral issues and had earlier tried to ban sexy chat lines from the 0055 network. In doing so, he unintentionally spawned the even bigger sex chat line industry on the 1900 network.

When polling around 2003-04 started showing 75 per cent support for internet filtering, Labor’s policy was born.

But to coin a phrase — ‘in cyberspace no one can hear you poll’. In the period 2004-2008 many of those wary parents started getting online themselves and realised that Liberal Senator Paul Calvert’s now famous injunction that ‘you just push P for porn and it all comes down’ was simply untrue, and that the internet takes you where you direct it. Many of them also found that watching a bit of porn was quite entertaining and didn’t turn them into serial killers.

They watched as John Howard spent $30 million providing free home filters and when they saw how easy it was for these filters to stop access to the local vet, the local doctor and the local aquatic centre, the thought of a third party having control of that filtering became a real worry. At least with the home filter you could turn the damn thing off when you wanted to.

However, the main problem for all politicians trying to deal with the internet is that they fundamentally do not understand what it is. In response to a general’s observation in the ‘Downfall’ video clip that filtering ‘will slow the internet to a crawl’, the Hitler/Conroy character replies that they should just ‘build more tubes’. Sadly, that’s how politicians see it. They see the internet primarily as a technology that delivers information and porn to the masses.

But the internet is not like a magazine or a film. It’s more like a giant mind. It simply mirrors the billions of minds that all put into it. The internet moves seamlessly between the realms of consciousness and the world of things. Like our minds, parts of it are here one minute, gone the next. Trying to legislate the content of the internet is closer to trying to legislate what people think, rather than legislating what they do. And because of this, proscriptive legislation will always have nasty unintended consequences for policy- makers. You can’t send in the plods to confiscate the printing press or the camera any more because there isn’t any single thing in time and space to confiscate.

In a way, the internet is making us all a little more ‘amoral’ but also a little more objective, which is no bad thing. If there are such terrible things as child porn and terrorism in the world, it’s only because that stuff is already in people’s minds. So how do you clean up the internet? Not by prosecuting their thoughts in cyberspace but by raising their consciousness and broadening their awareness so that sort of dangerous stuff just doesn’t surface any more.

The problem Conroy faces is that most of his ‘prohibited content’ is not illegal to watch and neither is it illegal activity in itself. He should simply be saying that prohibited content is that which shows illegal acts like rape, incest and child abuse and then prosecute the crimes. Instead of spending $100 million on filtering the internet to stop people looking at legal adult sex acts he should spend that money prosecuting illegal behaviour that turns up on the internet. If it’s in another country, then show some real leadership and convene an international internet police force that, like the internet, knows no boundaries.

Conroy’s position on filtering is unravelling fast. Under consistent pressure from the convener of the Australian Sex Party, Fiona Patten, he has now backed down on blacklisting X-rated material. Even the Australian Christian Lobby has backed this move. The IT industry and civil liberty groups have formed a powerful coalition that has forced Conroy into a corner from where he has become vindictive and aggressive. The satirical video clip is deadly on this point. When a general points out to Hitler that ‘people can see through that straw man argument’, he turns on the hapless general and bellows, ‘Child pornographer! Are you with us or against us?’ That’s exactly how minister Conroy has dealt with his critics and it has backfired on Labor badly.

PS. Even, or perhaps especially, on the internet, as in Life in General, it is easy to be misunderstood.

Last month, the Right to Know coalition met at the Sofitel Hotel in Sydney to talk about press freedom, including freedom of and on the internet. Comprising all of Australia’s major media players, the Right to Know campaign has primarily been orchestrated by the energetic CEO of News Limited, John Hartigan.

Thinking about these matters, I am reminded of a story concerning the eccentric English journalist Auberon Waugh who, like his father the great English novelist Evelyn Waugh, died of heart disease, at least partially caused by considerable overimbibing of alcoholic beverages. (Though a similar tale was, just last week in these pages, attributed to a High Court judge called Michael Kirby. The real story belongs to Waugh.)

A few years before he died in 2001, Auberon Waugh was invited to travel first-class to the landlocked, French-speaking Republic of Niger where he was to be accommodated at the poverty-stricken country’s only five-star hotel and lavishly supplied with top quality wine and champagne.

Waugh was invited to speak to a group of Niger’s elite on the topic of ‘breast-feeding’. Initially puzzled, but pleased to partake of such a palatial trip, Auberon Waugh launched into an impassioned attack on what he regarded as the all too prevalent habit of Western women exposing their breasts on to which — all in public view — infants gobbled like cannibals.

Halfway through his 20-minute speech, Waugh, whose French was more than adequate, was aware of an increasing look of bafflement on the faces of the audience.

It was only after finishing his harangue that the head of the Niger press corp explained that something must have got confused in translation. Waugh was supposed to be talking about ‘press freedom’!

The Spectator Australia