Defend free speech on the internet — block the filter


The South Australian government recently passed laws requiring anyone wanting to make a comment about the upcoming state election on the internet to publish their real name and postcode. This strikes a bold blow against the right to anonymity.

The new law, which came into power on January 6, is specifically targeted at commentary on electronic versions of a journal, but may also apply to media websites, talkback radio, blogs and even popular social networking websites MySpace and Facebook.

State Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, the architect of the law, said: "There is no impinging on freedom of speech, people are free to say what they wish as themselves, not as somebody else", reported the February 2 Australian.

The same day, Greens MLC Mark Parnell said: "[Members of Parliament] were told that the law change would only affect 'electronic versions of a journal'. Now there is concern that the laws could extend further, restricting public commentary on media websites."

A campaign was initiated by NewsLimited's website against the laws. More than 90% of people polled online called for the law to be repealed. Commentary, however, quickly spread beyond that engineered by the Murdoch machine, with independent bloggers, both politically and technologically minded, spreading the story across the globe through sites such as the popular news aggregator Slashdot.

Pirate Party Australia secretary Rodney Serkowski said: "Anonymity is an essential part of political discourse in any democracy, and an essential part of the freedom of speech.
"Mr Atkinson does not seem to realise that someone may choose to maintain their anonymity due to fear of harassment, political or economic retribution and even sometimes, threat to their lives. [Anonymity] is necessary for whistle blowers [and] those struggling against repressive governments."

Following widespread criticism, Atkinson announced late on February 2 that the laws would be repealed immediately. "We listened to what people of the blogging generation had to say and we changed our policy accordingly", he said.

Premier Mike Rann also defended the move. "For many young people, and even the not so young, internet is their parliament of ideas and information", he said on Twitter.
The victory over internet censorship in South Australia clearly demonstrates the power mass media institutions have over popular opinion in modern society — but also the role of "people power" in challenging bad laws and repressive moves by governments.

The campaign also demonstrated the contradictions in any censorship scheme. The law was unable to be effectively policed. That was one of the main criticisms that led to the repeal. A person within SA could simply provide a false name and postcode, while the law would not apply to anyone living outside the state.

The same contradictions are inherent in the federal Labor government's plan to introduce a mandatory internet service provider-based filter known as a "clean feed" — and a mass campaign can defeat the bad laws.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy proposes a two-tier blacklist filter, granting the government power to block content it considers to be inappropriate. Non-profit organisation Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has found severe flaws in the government's feasibility report, including drastic reductions in speed and significant over-blocking of websites.

The policy has also been criticised for its lack of transparency, and potential for misuse as a tool for clamping down on political dissent. Sites deemed "inappropriate" will be blacklisted, but the blacklist itself will be kept secret.

Allowing the state to decide what information Australians can and can't access is the first step towards censoring opinions the authorities consider to be subversive.

The government seeks to introduce the filter under the guise of protecting children from pornography and other adult material. But with no "opt-out" option, any content deemed inappropriate will also be unavailable to adults. Blocked content includes, for example, online games intended for an audience aged over 18.

A February 26, 2009 Sydney Morning Herald article said a GetUp! telephone poll found that only 5% of those surveyed wanted internet service providers to be responsible for the safety of children online. A mere 4% wanted to grant the government the responsibility.

A Getup! petition against the laws has raised 120,000 signatures so far.

Child welfare organisations Save the Children and National Children's and Youth Law Centre are also among those voicing opposition. They believe the scheme to be ineffective and a waste of resources better spent on other protective measures.

On December 15, Conroy said the legislation would be introduced to parliament during the autumn sitting this year. A national day of action is being organised for March 6 by online free speech group Block the filter.

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