By Karl Miller
The federal government's Online Services Bill, a harsh internet censorship law announced by federal communications minister Richard Alston on April 21, is proceeding rapidly through parliament and may be passed before July.
This year there has been a quiet but significant increase in censorship. First, the government tried to ban a remake of the film Lolita, then, with Senator Brian Harradine's help, it quietly implemented new restrictions on television programs. Now, it is the internet's turn.
TV classifications will be used to decide what is acceptable viewing on the internet. But the internet is not like TV. There are a few thousand TV stations around the world. Each city and town in Australia receives only a handful of stations. On the internet, there are millions of web sites, many containing vast amounts of information. All are available at once.
The way the classifications are to be enforced is not yet clear. However, in order to avoid fines of more than $25,000 a day, internet service providers will probably err on the side of caution. The most likely approach will be to filter out any information that is even slightly risky.
The sort of "filtering" technology available to do this is primitive and highly subjective. For example, most filter programs will block pornography, information about the availability of illegal drugs and bomb construction manuals. But in the process, they also block information about sexual health, domestic violence, gay and lesbian rights, and safe drug use. All of that information becomes invisible.
This law's real intent is to extend the government's anti-democratic policies into yet another sphere. Anyone under 18 years old will need "parental consent" before going online, and must be supervised by an adult.
The bill does not recognise the right of internet users to privacy. It is worded so vaguely that if a person has internet access at home, everything on their computer could be considered illegal or offensive simply because they are able to e-mail it to someone else.
In 1996, an edition of Rabelais, the La Trobe University student union newspaper, was pulped for printing an article describing how to shoplift. The article was not violent or erotic, but the authorities deemed it "likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult".
This law is about giving the government the power to restrict access to factual material, to decide what we are allowed to know and think. We live in a capitalist society. Laws here are set up to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. If you advocate something different, you might be treated the way Rabelais was.
New technology can change the way people work together. Old censorship laws can rapidly become ineffective when faced with this new technology: relatively cheap computers makes information on the internet easy to access and the truth is harder to conceal if one person can provide it for millions to read.
In Australia and around the world, capitalist governments are rapidly trying to work out how to make their laws apply to the internet. The availability of information on the internet is still relatively unrestricted. It will be massively curtailed unless the Online Services Bill is stopped.