Clive Hamilton & I: Getting Personal about Sex, Lies, Hate & Censorship
By Syd Walker
November 26, 2008
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 didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and more of it. Take global warming Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 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 humanityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s future. Left to Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthe marketÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like a global carbon tax, but thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s another discussion for another timeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“unthinking libertarianÃ¢â‚¬Â who opposes regulation in almost every situation.
I may have Ã¢â‚¬Ëœlibertarian leaningsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢, 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 thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
AustraliaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬ËœCyber-safety PolicyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢. Internet censorship via ISP-level Ã¢â‚¬ËœfilteringÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ was featured in the policy. The exact words were: Ã¢â‚¬Å“A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœclean feedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Not surprisingly, few people noticed or discussed this policy at the time. There was plenty else going onÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ the Government was about to change.After LaborÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s victory, Senator Stephen Conroy was appointed Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a crucial portfolio, especially given the Rudd GovernmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s welcome acknowledgement of the importance of the Internet to AustraliaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s future.
One might expect that most ofÃ‚Â Senator ConroyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 (itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬â„¢filteringÃ¢â‚¬â„¢. That Ã¢â‚¬ËœclarificationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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 Ã¢â‚¬Ëœclean feedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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 ALPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pre-election polices, I think its fair to say that Ã¢â‚¬Å“require ISPs to OFFER (a censored service)Ã¢â‚¬Â has morphed into Ã¢â‚¬Å“require ISPs to OFFER ONLY (a censored service)Ã¢â‚¬Â. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going out on a limb, without the electorateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prior endorsement and may well reap severe consequences at the next election. Proceed with mandatory Internet censorship, Mr Rudd, and youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.
Conroy’s Internet Censorship Policy Explained
But whereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬â„¢security servicesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢) wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve pushed this policy onto Rudd Ã¢â‚¬â€œ just like they tried to foist it earlier on the Federal Coalition (as well as on former ALP Leader Kim Beasley). TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll use any window-dressing arguments that work to help get their way.Ã‚Â Who knows, they might even encourage suitable Ã¢â‚¬ËœexpertsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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 occurrence 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.