As I See It: Uproar Down Under
July 12, 2010 Victor Rozek
Those in favor of restricting speech often argue that the Framers of the Constitution could not have anticipated a technology such as the Internet that can be used to disseminate bomb-making instructions, invite sedition, propagate racism, and spread pornography like pollen. And, of course, they’re right. The Framers probably didn’t envision space travel either; or Lady Gaga, or a black President, for that matter. But here we are.
Free speech is perhaps humankind’s most cherished and envied freedom. Yet it is always under assault. The self-righteous would restrict it for moral reasons; the closed-minded for political advantage; and the unscrupulous for economic gain.
Even when it is not actually curtailed by law, there can be medieval consequences to speaking one’s truth. Radical Islamists kill over a cartoon; a professor is fired for articulating a theory of racial superiority; and, as Oprah found out a few years back, telling the truth about feedlot practices that would gag a rat, can get you sued.
Free speech is like a beautiful carpet badly soiled at the edges. There is some ugly stuff out there on the fringes, but most of us manage to step over it without getting infected. For the most part, outright censorship is still considered un-American (except perhaps in some school boards that are wont to ban any form of advanced thought not found in the Old Testament). But the Internet is causing problems for everybody. The proliferation of unwanted ideas and images, and the ease with which they can be accessed, has caused a great deal of angst among parents, civil libertarians, regulatory agencies, and governments.
Americans have an unspoken expectation that free speech should be available to all peoples in all places at all times, and we recoil at non-democratic nations such as China, Egypt, and Iran, which tightly control dissent by blocking threatening sites and persecuting threatening people. It is therefore troubling that Australia may soon join their ranks.
From the land of “no worries” comes Stephen Conroy, professional worrier. He’s worried about Australia’s children, and has a plan to save them from 21st century reality. Absent super powers, he has the next best thing–a government title as big as the Great Sandy Desert: Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy. Two years ago, he announced a $106 million “cybersafety plan” that would–if all goes well–prevent children from accessing naughty and illegal material posted on the Internet. He proposes to do this by studying naughty and illegal material very, very carefully and identifying some 10,000 Web sites that the Australian Communications and Media Authority would block.
According to Mariana Kamenev, writing for Time: “The government won’t reveal an official list of the URLs on the current blacklist, but Conroy’s office says it includes sites containing child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act.”
Conroy points out that he already has existing Australian law on his side. The type of material he seeks to ban cannot be accessed on Australian television, or at the movies, or in libraries, or by renting DVDs. Even news agencies are prohibited from displaying such material.
OK, so it’s hard not to admire Conroy just a little. More than once I’ve run across an article or an image on the Internet that makes me cringe in disgust and want to rethink the limits of free speech. Should the pious members of the Westboro Baptist Church be allowed to scream “God bless IEDs” at the funerals of gay servicemen? Should a child surfing the Net stumble upon a video of some pervert doing something nasty? Not if I were King.
And there’s a good reason I’m not. Once I banned the most egregious offenders, I would be tempted to further nuance free expression until the only remaining opinions reflected my own. As always, when it comes to censorship the issue is not only what will be banned, but who decides. When a preliminary blacklist was leaked to Wikileaks (a monument to First Amendment protections, and a site, incidentally, that our own government is none too fond of), verboten sites included those of “a dentist from Queensland, a pet-care facility. . . and a site belonging to a school cafeteria consultant.” Guess somebody didn’t like his dentist.
Conroy responded to the leak like governments do when their draconian plans to safeguard citizens are exposed: He threatened to prosecute the leakers. Thus, not only are the offenders criminalized, so are those who object to the government having a blacklist in the first place. It’s the classic slippery slope.
Conroy’s dilemma is that more and more of his fellow countrymen are aligning against his plan. The IT industry, civil libertarians, even some child protection groups found the plan “deeply flawed.” Then Google and Yahoo weighed in. Google, which recently stood up to Chinese censors, and Yahoo, which would like us to forget that it tattled on dissidents, both expressed concern that Conroy’s net was too broad. It would, they warned, slow search engines down to the speed of a kangaroo with a hamstring injury, and could be circumvented by a high school hacker with testosterone poisoning.
The government again responded by attacking its detractors. It “launched a police investigation into the activities of Google in Australia, accusing the company of collecting private information while taking photographs for their Street View Service.”
But Conroy’s threats just made everyone dig in. The criticism intensified and went international. “Paris-based Reporters Without Borders,” writes Kamenev, “listed Australia as a country that’s ‘under surveillance’ in its annual ‘Internet Enemies’ report, which rounds up the ‘worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net.'” Back home, hackers shut down the Australian Parliament’s Web site in protest, and a poll of nearly 90,000 people showed that 99 percent were against the filter.
Still, Conroy insists he’s going forward with the plan.
I suppose there is some irony that a country founded as a penal colony would allow any freedom to be restricted. Yet the underlying intention–protecting children–is undeniably positive. The quandary facing Australia is as old as speech itself: What, if anything, do we do about offensive or harmful speech? In 1798, our own congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Their intent was to protect Catholics from alien citizens of enemy powers and to safeguard the nation from seditious attacks. But John Adams, full of the power of the newly established presidency, began to nuance threats. Before the Sedition Act expired in 1801, eighteen editors had been jailed for speaking out against Adams. It’s the “you’re with us or against us” mentality as most recently exemplified by Conroy; complete with threats of punishment if you dare disagree.
In 1997, the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU overturned our own version of Australia’s cybersafety plan–the Communications Decency Act. In its decision the court said: “Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to roast the pig.”
The Internet–like television before it, and the radio before that–pushes free expression beyond its previous boundaries. The justices understood that the price of cohabiting with a largely unrestricted freedom is the willingness to endure a measure of discomfort.