A decade or so ago, I knew Clive Hamilton personally.
We met a few times through common involvement in environmental issues. He appeared to be a nice man with a good head for policy and commitment to progressive politics. When, in the mid 90s, he became Founder/Director of the Australia Institute, it seemed like an excellent initiative. Public interest think-tanks that develop new ideas and policy can play an important role in bringing about positive change. Australia has few such organizations. Overall, while I didn’t get to know Dr Hamilton well, I liked what I saw and supported the causes he made his own.
Protection of the environment is one policy area where I believe wise and effective regulation is merited – and more of it. Take global warming – an issue on which Dr Hamilton has worked hard throughout the last decade. I believe that the potential for human-induced global climate change is significant and poses unknown but alarming dangers to humanity’s future. Left to ‘the market’ alone, the necessary changes in human behaviour are unlikely to happen fast enough, if at all. Collective, political action is therefore needed, including stronger regulatory measures from governments. Personally, I’d like a global carbon tax, but that’s another discussion for another time…
I mention this to make it clear that my dispute with Clive Hamilton over Internet Censorship is not the quintessential stand-off between a sensible mainstream view and an “unthinking libertarian” who opposes regulation in almost every situation.
I may have ‘libertarian leanings’, but my concern is that regulation is applied only when circumstances demand – not on whim alone. Moreover, regulation must be appropriate. Sometimes (an example is prohibition of murder), regulation should be strict and rigorously enforced. In other cases I believe there’s a strong case for a hands-off approach. Unnecessary regulation is a nuisance; inappropriate regulation can be downright dangerous. It all depends on the specifics of the case.
Australia’s Dispute over Internet Censorship
In the run up to the last Federal election, just a few days before the poll, the ultimately victorious Australian Labor Party released a ‘Cyber-safety Policy’. Internet censorship via ISP-level ‘filtering’ was featured in the policy. The exact words were: “A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.”
Not surprisingly, few people noticed or discussed this policy at the time. There was plenty else going on… the Government was about to change.
After Labor’s victory, Senator Stephen Conroy was appointed Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. It’s a crucial portfolio, especially given the Rudd Government’s welcome acknowledgement of the importance of the Internet to Australia’s future.
One might expect that most of Senator Conroy’s attention these days is dedicated to the thorny issue of the promised new continental broadband rollout. If not, it helps explain why this policy may be going nowhere fast.
A national broadband upgrade is one policy for which the Rudd Government most certainly does have a mandate. Many Australians – including business interests – are dissatisfied with our broadband speeds, which are often well below world best practice. Improving the network is a complex task and requires skillful Ministerial oversight.
Yet without having resolved the complex issue of the promised Broadband Rollout (it’s barely at Base One after a year in office) Conroy is increasingly becoming identified as the Minister for Compulsory Internet Censorship. Surely this is a distraction from his real job?
A month or two after the election, Senator Conroy suggested that the Government was going to bring in compulsory ISP-level Internet ’filtering’. That ‘clarification’ of the stated pre-election policy raised alarm bells in the community. Then he seemed to back down over compulsion. Now, in the last quarter of 2008, Conroy has made his intentions plain. He wants a compulsory ‘clean feed’ for everyone throughout the land. He wants it ASAP. And he wants to make an immediate start, by arranging trials with volunteer ISPs. These trials are due to begin by the end of 2008.
While there was some ambiguity in the wording of the ALP’s pre-election polices, I think its fair to say that “require ISPs to OFFER (a censored service)” has morphed into “require ISPs to OFFER ONLY (a censored service)”. That’s a fundamental shift.
There was no significant pre-election community debate about this issue. The Rudd Government has no clear mandate to introduce compulsory Internet censorship. If it does so, it’s going out on a limb, without the electorate’s prior endorsement and may well reap severe consequences at the next election. Proceed with mandatory Internet censorship, Mr Rudd, and you’ve lost my vote. I speak for myself, but there are plenty of others who feel the same way.
I do accept there are occasions when governments must act in the public interest, whether or not it has an explicit electoral mandate. That’s reality in a complex, fast-moving world. The economic crisis, for example, calls for unforeseen new initiatives. In emergencies, Governments may need to move fast.
But where’s the emergency that calls for Internet censorship now?
To my knowledge, the Government has presented no spectacular new evidence to support the proposed change to mandatory censorship at the ISP level. On first glance, it seems the policy has been made on the run.
I suspect, but cannot prove, that the truth is even murkier and more unpleasant. I believe this is the resurrection of an agenda that suits particular powerful interest groups, both within and outside government. It is actually part of a global agenda.
These interest groups (which include elements within the mis-named ’security services’) won’t argue their case openly and explicitly in public. To do so would damage their interests, by exposing their overweening and largely unregulated power and their desire to accumulate more of it. So they’ve pushed this policy onto Rudd – just like they tried to foist it earlier on the Federal Coalition (as well as on former ALP Leader Kim Beasley). They’ll use any window-dressing arguments that work to help get their way. Who knows, they might even encourage suitable ‘experts’ to give the government a little assistance, so Internet censorship better survives public debate and Parliamentary scrutiny?
I may be wrong about this, but I fear not. Whereas he proposed filter makes no real technological sense as means to secure the Internet against pornography, it would work effectively as a way of controlling access to information. Specific speeches or articles could be tracked and every occurence blocked. This could be done automatically and very effectively on searchable text.
At the very least, I believe we should not reject out of hand the possibility of a hidden agenda behind the push to censor the Internet.
The Moral Panic
Foremost among the arguments that are used openly in favour of ‘mandatory filtering’ is the proposition that the Internet is a dangerous world, replete with smut and vice. No normal people want this! Children are unquestionably at risk! There’s an epidemic of pure filth! Therefore the Government must act now!
That’s about the intellectual level at which Senator Conroy has been pitching the case for Internet censorship. I may, indeed, be doing him a favour. The rare occasions when he’s reluctantly fielded critical questions on the topic, he’s made a hash out of it.
Let’s hope he’s not so incompetent when he argues the Government’s corner in the high-stakes poker game over the much-vaunted new broadband infrastructure. If so, heaven help us. The Telco bosses will swallow him whole.
But Senator Conroy has been lucky. The mainstream media, while covering the story to some extent, has yet to get really stuck into the Minister over Internet censorship. (It’s possible that may change – and change soon. We’ll see.)
The relative calm in the mass media contrasts with an extraordinary grass roots uproar that has issued forth from ordinary Australians, connected mainly via the internet, who express in websites, blogs, comments and other ways their profound opposition to the Rudd Government’s attempt to impose mandatory Internet censorship.
There’s no shortage of articulate critics of the Government’s plans – if the media wants to interview them. Electronic Frontiers Australia is running a superb campaign. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent articulate chorus from the pro-censorship lobby – rather belying the Government’s claim that it’s new policy is inresponse to public pressure.
On past performance, if Senator Conroy was forced to debate Internet censorship with articulate critics on anything resembling a level playing field, it would be like blood sport.
So when I heard Australia Talks – an ABC Radio National talkback show – was covering the topic, I wondered if Minister Conroy would debate, on air, with technologically-savvy, articulate critics.
I relished the prospect. But I was to be disappointed.
Clive Hamilton’s Key Role
At the beginning of the program, Australia Talks listeners were treated to some pre-recorded remarks from the Minister in a softball interview. Then Conroy vacated the scene entirely (perhaps he listened in?). The task of arguing the Government’s case was left to others – principally to Dr Clive Hamilton.
The Government’s censorship proposals have an articulate spokesperson in Clive Hamilton.
He speaks reasonably and in a calm voice. Unencumbered with links to any religious denomination, he’s a secular humanist who’s argued in the past for a more ethical way of life. Dr Hamilton is someone any member of a decent Australian ‘working family’ could respect, whether religious or not.
A few years ago, Clive Hamilton and the Australia Institute first entered the internet censorship debate with some widely reported papers and media releases.
I corresponded with him at that time. I was keen to seek clarification of his position and also wanted to convey my deep concerns about the censorship proposal he was advocating. We had a brief exchange of emails, but neither of us were persuaded by the other’s arguments. Dialogue fizzled out.
It was during that exchange that I first heard the very persuasive case that Dr Hamilton uses again and again in this debate. He used it on Australia Talks last week.
The argument was re-iterated in Clive Hamilton’s recent article, which begins as follows (emphases added): “What’s so special about the internet? All but the most unthinking libertarians accept censorship laws that limit sexual content in film, television, radio, books and magazines. Yet the hysterical response from the internet industry and libertarian commentators to the Government’s proposal to require ISPs to filter heavy-duty porn shows how the internet has become fetishised.”
A friend of mine, who doesn’t use the Internet but has children who do, listened to Clive say something similar during the recent Australia Talks discussion. He found it a very persuasive argument and repeated it back to me afterwards. Superficially, it is persuasive. What’s the big deal if we already censor other similar media?
But as I said in my correspondence at the time, I believe the argument is based on a false analogy. Dangerously false.
To say why, I’ll give another analogy that I think is more appropriate.
But first, a word of caution. The Internet – and the World Wide Web which rests upon it and provides a user-friendly interface – are truly without precedent. There is no exact parallel in history and we should be cautious of all analogies. None of them really work – and the simple truth is that we must work out for ourselves the most appropriate social, cultural and legal ‘response’ to this new technology, conscious of the novelty of the situation. The past is only a guide. Analogies are useful only to a point.
Even so, were I to draw an analogy for the Web, I’d be more inclined to compare it to the postal service. In my correspondence with Dr Hamilton years ago, I may have used email as a comparison.
To my way of thinking, censoring the World Wide Web is more like censoring a public mail service. That’s because – unlike radio, TV, newspapers etc – the web is not a broadcast medium. Not in the main. It’s a narrowcast medium, in which different users choose their own material from a vast range.
Developing the mail analogy, the Web is more akin to millions of pigeon holes. Each user chooses which pigeon holes to open and explore. The range of possibilities is vast. He/she may visit http://www.abc.net.au – or http://www.bugggaboo.org – or something else again, millions of times over.
When I turn on my TV or enter a newsagent, I know that what I’ll find is similar to what Dr Hamilton – or anyone else in Australia – will also experience. I get much the same mass media fodder as Clive, I imagine.
But when I turn to the Internet, I go where I choose. I have no idea where Clive goes. That’s up to him. We may be using the same general ‘medium’ – but we’re likely to inhabit very distinct, essentially private universes when we use it. That’s very different from the situation when we both turn on the TV. In that case, in separate houses in separate States thousands of kilometres apart, we have a limited choice and most of the programs are identical.
I know certain ‘standards’ are maintained in these public and broadcast media. Taken as a whole, the information industry and mass media deliver a shared portrayal of reality to millions of Australians.
Personally, I’m concerned about the level of effective censorship this conformism entails. Some rather important topics, such as the real truth about 9-11 and some of the events that took place during World War Two, are never subjected to genuine, open, balanced scrutiny in the western mass media or within the mainstream publishing industry. There is blatant bias in favour of some perspectives and against others. Clive, I guess, isn’t bothered by this phenomenon. He may well support it. I am bothered. I wonder why Clive’s not bothered – but that’s his business, I guess?
As there are only so many hours in the day and only so many worthy causes one can put time into, I haven’t spent much time campaigning to push back the boundaries of mainstream censorship in Australia (in bookshops. Newsagents, on TV etc). Correspondence with Philip Adams a few years ago gave me a taste of the condescending evasiveness one is likely to encounter. If Late Night Live won’t cover an issue as important as 9-11 in a balanced way, I think it’s a serious problem – and I support more balanced and accurate mass media coverage. But rightly or wrongly, I haven’t put a lot of energy into this myself.
The Web as Information Liberation
One reason why – the main reason – is the access I have to a free Internet.
Thanks to the Internet, I don’t need to wait until hell freezes over at the ABC or at News Ltd.
Instead, I can look inside many, many ‘pigeon holes’ to which I’d otherwise have no easy access.
Let’s take an example. If I learn that an elderly Professor of Literature in France has been repeatedly beaten up and arrested – and only recently had his home raided by police – I don’t have to put up with the minimal reporting or non-reporting of distorted reporting of this man and his plight in Australia’s mainstream media. I can check out the source material myself. I can read directly what he has written. In this way, I can get a better appreciation of what all the fuss is about – and form MY OWN view.
What’s more, millions more Australians have discovered the same thing. Of course, each of us looks into different topics – from aeronautics to algebra, bees to beetroot, Cairo to Chinese cooking.
The ability to research independently, using the internet, enabled me to run a website in the run up to the Iraq War in 2002/3. Among other things, it argued that:
- the invasion of Iraq was justified by blatant lies
- claims of Iraqi WMD’s rested on highly suspect (fabricated) ‘evidence’
- invading Iraq (and Afghanistan) was both illegal and immoral
- the occupation of Iraq would end up being a major disaster for Iraq and the aggressors
- the Iraq invasion – and the entire, bogus ‘War on Terror’ – was primarily orchestrated by Zionist (pro-Israel) interests
Half a dozen years later, only the last of these propositions remains contentious (although evidence in support has accumulated and gone mainstream).
Yet at the time, all these propositions were heresy in Australia’s public discourse.
During the run-up to the invasion, Australia’s newspapers and mainstream electronic media overwhelmingly parroted the official legend about Iraqi WMDs and an ‘imminent threat’. Of course the ‘War for Oil’ line spouted by the ‘official’ peace movement was reported too. But there was broad consensus that Iraq was a rogue State with WMDs. The notion that a real rogue State with genuine WMDs was, in reality, setting up another nation for its own sectarian gain, was never discussed by our mainstream media.
So – how did I figure out a reasonably accurate take on Iraq and related issues while the mainstream media in Australia and most of the bums on seats in Parliament couldn’t or wouldn’t? Was I using Superior intelligence? Magic?
A bit of both, actually. Instead of only reading and listening to conformist media, I spent a lot of time reading intelligent analysis via the (magical!) Internet – trying to figure out the reality beneath the surface.
I was motivated to do this. I am passionately anti-war and have been throughout my adult life. I was appalled at the drift into yet another wholly unnecessary and evil war, based on absurd fabrications. I couldn’t leave the subject alone. (Incidentally, I ran my website from a shed in a paddock. At the time I didn’t even have broadband!)
Glancing through his website, I observe that Clive Hamilton has left these topics well alone. I can find remarkably little on that website critical of Australia’s swelling military budget, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the mass destruction of western civil liberties that’s been underway for several years. Perhaps I haven’t found the right pages?
Now, no single person or organization can work on every issue. Focus is essential. Who am I to criticize the choices Clive has made in his activism? I accept that no one has a monopoly of wisdom! I certainly don’t.
Australia’s New Memory Hole
But here’s the big difference in our respective positions.
I am no interest in restricting Clive Hamilton’s freedom to review whatever material he chooses.
On the other hand, he is vigorously promoting a Government-run system of censorship; if implemented, it will mean that at any time I may be unable to find some of the ‘pigeon holes’ I’d like to look inside.
I won’t be notified that the pigeon holes have been blocked. I may never learn about them at all. Over time – if the government is serious about ‘cleansing’ Australia’s Internet ‘feed’ – there will be tens or hundreds of thousands of blocked up pigeon holes. I’ll have to go to great lengths to find them. Indeed, quite conceivably the very act of trying to find them may become an illegal act in due course.
Who’s to say that some of those pigeon holes may not be the ones that may help me obtain a more accurate take on reality than the Government, News Corp or the ABC – in the event of YET ANOTHER atrocious, illegal and immoral war?
Will the Government guarantee that? Will Clive?
I’ll re-iterate this key difference between Clive Hamilton’s position and mine.
Clive Hamilton wants to restrict what’s available to me via the Internet. I don’t want to restrict his access. Our positions are asymmetrical.
Clive claims to be protecting ‘victims’, but from where I sit, the scheme he supports will create millions of victims.
I’m one of them.
The Special Case of ‘Hate’
During the discussion on Australia Talks, Dr Hamilton said he doesn’t want political censorship on the Internet. He claims that he doesn’t believe the government’s ‘mandatory filetering’ is intended for that purpose. The censorship push is only about very nasty porn.
I have some skepticism about this. It’s partly the language he used. As I recall, Hamilton said he’d ‘even’ support freedom to view ‘hate sites’. His tone of voice clearly implied he considered such things odious – yet he stressed that that’s how tolerant he is – and how little we have to worry. Why – he’d even support access to hate sites!
But what is a ‘hate site’? The fact he uses the term suggests that Clive thinks he already knows. I make no such claim. In fact, I’ve come to reject the notion that it’s sensible to define or use the term. I think expressions like ‘hate speech’, ‘hate sites’ and ‘hate crime’ are sneaky absurdities, introduced into the language to do violence to our civil liberties. I believe they are routinely used to protect relatively privileged interests from scrutiny. The main beneficiary has been the Zionist Lobby.
Clive is entitled to a different perspective on this, of course. But here again there’s a huge underlying difference. He sees no problem, apparently, in categorizing speech and websites into two categories, ‘hate speech’ and ‘non hate speech’. The implication is that there’s an accepted consensus about what the terms mean. At the moment, he’s saying he doesn’t support censoring ‘hate speech’. But of course, with a ‘filtering’ system in place, it will be a very easy add-on for any Government. Overseas experience suggests it will happen.
In the case of websites critical of the ‘official’ narrative of World War Two, if they disappear from Australia’s web, the public will face a double whammy.
First, we’d have to notice they are missing (it would be as though books have been removed from the shelves of a library and catalogue entries deleted. How do we know what was there originally?) Next, we’d have to campaign against the ban on any given site.
Such a campaign itself may well be defined as ‘hate speech’ and criminalized – which would probably include blocking web coverage of the debate. In Finland, a country that mysteriously chose to implement internet filtering, one of the sites on the (leaked) banned list was a site opposing Internet censorship. In Turkey, where Internet censorship was also introduced recently, Index on Censorship reports “there are more people working on censoring the Internet than developing it”.
Kafka and Orwell would appreciate these tales.
At this stage in a rather long article, I’ll stop writing in the third person and address Dr Hamilton directly.
I’m going to get personal.
I trust, Clive, that I’ve given some indication about why I’m so concerned about the Internet Censorship issue?
You are advocating a system that entails people I don’t know – and have no reason to trust – systematically blocking off pigeon hole entrances in the gigantic, evolving global library known as the World Wide Web. You’re out to restrict my access. By contrast, I’m not trying to do any such thing to you.
Why are YOU trying to restrict my freedom – and that of other Australians – in such a way?
I’ll go further. How dare you!
What About Porn?
Now to the phenomenon you claim is at the heart of the case for compulsory Internet censorship – pornography.
First, I’m not persuaded by the claim that internet pornography is, in reality, a significant social crisis in contemporary Australia. There are undoubtedly many people looking at porn on the internet. But where are all the casualties? Where’s the solid research that demonstrates real and serious harm? Where the academic consensus that this is a serious problem?
Please bring forward your evidence. Let’s have it all debated, discussed and exposed to public scrutiny! How about an open Senate Inquiry into this specific topic – if there’s really enough basis for concern to merit the time of our busy politicians?
Second, what makes you think it’s remotely feasible to block the web’s pigeon holes so successfully that the Internet will be ‘safe’ (whatever that means) for the young and vulnerable? Even your fellow censorship advocates admit the proposed mandatory ‘filter’ will be very ‘leaky’. Isn’t there a risk of misleading parents, if the Government falsely pretends that the Internet has been rendered ‘safe’ via a leaky filter?
Third, what’s wrong with the current situation? For several years, Internet filters have been available, free of charge, to those Australians who want to install them on their family’s own computers. Why doesn’t that suffice? I know uptake has been low – but doesn’t that suggest most Australians don’t share your obsession with censoring the Internet? Why are you so concerned to make censorship compulsory for ALL Australians?
We probably differ over the definition and dangers of pornography, Clive.
As time goes by, you increasingly strike me as a bit of a prude.
I wonder if the censors will share your values? How many will the Government need to employ? (there are tens, hundreds of thousands of websites to review). What will the selection criteria be for a censor? Will prior experience be an advantage? How will the censors themselves be protected from the ‘damage’ you allege pornography causes? How to avoid recruiting people who just want to watch lots of porn (legally) in air-conditioned offices at the taxpayer’s expense? Or doesn’t it matter? The mind boggles at the practicalities of this crazy scheme.
Anyhow, here’s another question.
Who the hell are you to determine sexual morality for ALL Australians? Who is Senator Conroy, for that matter? Who are the porn-monitors? Who are ANY of you to perform that role?
Why do you seek to impose standards on me that I may well not share?
Do this for your children by all means – especially when they are little. But leave me out of your moral regime. I’ll make my own decisions, thanks. I don’t want you – or anyone else – telling me what to see and what not to see.
What I choose to view does you no direct harm. Please butt out of my private life!
If you experience more authoritarian urges, try re-reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty! Refresh your memory on the principles that underpin liberal democratic society.
I don’t intend to defend ‘child porn’ or any of the other very exotic phenomena that apparently strike you, Clive, as the gravest dangers of the moment. I’ll just point out that there are already laws in all jurisdictions against child abuse. If pictures of abuse are posted on the web, the criminals make it all the easier for law enforcement agencies to arrest them.
Let’s Talk About Hate
If obscenity is the issue, can we discuss real obscenity?
How about illegal wars, based on lies, wars in our own times, that this country participates in and/or supports?
These are wars in which innocent people – many, many people including many, many children – have been and continue to be killed, maimed, suffer poverty and disease, all as a direct consequence of armed assaults by Australia’s ‘allies’.
These appalling and entirely avoidable obscenities don’t seem to bother you much, Clive, judging by your website. Yet you’re shocked about pornography on home computers.
For what it’s worth, I think you have your priorities backwards. I think they are seriously screwed up.
Would you agree that if ‘hate speech’ has any meaning at all, it is ‘hate speech’ to promote illegal wars based on lies?
If not, why not?
If so, why aren’t you concerned about the proliferation of such ‘hate speech’ in the mainstream media, every time there’s another war in the offing in the middle east?
Why do you agonize publicly over the fate of children exposed to the ‘plague’ of porn on the Internet – but say little, as far as I can see, about children who are victims of depleted uranium dropped by Australia’s military allies with the connivance of our own Government? Why aren’t you using your advocacy skills to lambast our mass media for helping to sell wars based on lies? How do you choose your priorities?
The bottom line, of course, is that you are free to pursue your own interests and concerns. But start impeding MY opportunities to do the same and you become my opponent.
Actually, I’m disgusted that you even try, without adducing compelling evidence of the alleged net social benefit. The ‘evidence’ you have come across may persuade you, but you’ve clearly not persuaded the majority of people actively concerned about this issue and you haven’t persuaded me. Why not try again? Are you a democrat – or an authoritarian?
Your grubby desire to restrict the freedom of your fellow Australians without good cause revolts me.
You fret like the Reverend Fred Nile over photos you’ve seen of men and women with semen on their faces. Dear me. Why not change the page?
How about real children with their arms or legs blown off, in Palestine, Somalia, the Lebanon or Afghanistan? Why DON’T we Australians see MORE of those pictures which show the direct consequence of our own nation’s foreign policy?
You seem to think there’s too much shocking material in the media. I think there’s not enough of what we should find truly shocking. You obsess about illicit sex. I’m more concerned about unnecessary death.
You are quite entitled to believe your moral perspective is well-considered.
So are the rest of us.
Clive, please keep your hands off all the entrances to all those pigeon holes – the millions of them that make up the ever-changing World Wide Web! That’s public domain. Back off!
The Government’s Internet Censorship plan, for which you have become the most visible apologist, is counter-productive, unreasonable, divisive and outright dangerous.
If your role as Public Advocate No 1 for this scheme becomes the crowning achievement of your career – the key policy change for which you can later claim major personal credit – then I believe you will leave a sorry legacy.
History will remember you as fondly as it recalls the enthusiastic commissars, who started tidying up the means of communication – and history itself – on behalf the Soviet regime, once the Leninists consolidated their power.
You’re not my Big Brother, Clive. The impersonation ill becomes you.
Why not lighten up and take a holiday?
Alternatively, get back to issues that matter to all sentient Australians, issues on which there’s strong and growing consensus for intelligent new policy – issues such as climate change policy or the current economic turnoil.
I don’t ask you do this for me, Clive. I’ve no right to make demands on your time.