Editors Note: This is a guest post by Duncan Riley, Australian entrepreneur,respected blogger and editor of The Inquistr . We are delighted to have someone of his calibre and experience share his thoughts on the potential consequences on Australia’s Internet censorship plans.
The spectre of broadscale Internet censorship in Australia has been covered previously here on The Next Web before, but many outside Australia may wonder: why should you care if you don’t live in Australia.
New York, meet the world’s tech scene
5,000 Tech leaders are coming to NYC this November to learn and do business. This is your chance to join them.
If you’re not aware of what’s proposed, the short version is that Australia is proposing to introduce a compulsory firewall that filters content based on a blacklist of banned sites.
What’s going to be on that list is even now still somewhat confused. The Censorship Minister Stephen Conroy has stated that all Refused Classification content will be banned, which in Australia would extend to computer games unsuitable for children (Australia has no adult (R18+) rating for computer games,) small breasts, information about euthanasia, discussion forums on anorexia, as well as the usual nasties of child porn. To complicate matters, a site may be refused classification in Australia if it links to a site that is refused classification, which could literally result in half the internet being blocked.
Notably though the system will work primarily on a reporting basis; that is, sites to be banned are reported to authorities, so it’s not clear whether sites en masse will be banned up front, or the ban will be creeping. Within that, the process is secretive, with little to no ability to appeal a ban; a previous leak to Wikileaks showed that a current list (Australia has a banned sites list currently but it’s not used in censorship) included the website of a dentist.
But why should you care if you’re not in Australia? After all, it’s just those crazy Aussies doing their own thing, at least that’s how some sites have reported it.
You should care because of the precedent it creates, and the global flow on effect such a precedent would create. This is particularly relevant to those in the UK, where many The Next Web readers are based.
Australia and the UK have a common history going back years. It was only in 1983 under the Australia Act (a joint act in both the UK and Australian Parliaments) where appeals to the UK Privy Council were cut off for Australian Court appeals. Both countries share a similar legal system and rule of law; although Australia cherry picked some parts of the American system when declaring independence in 1901 (particularly the establishment of a Senate vs a House of Lords,) Australia is still very much British in many ways, not unlike New Zealand (which is more British) and to a lesser extent Canada.
With a shared history, both countries commonly look to each other on matters of law and legal matters. Of note is the reference by the Australian Minister to the United Kingdom’s current internet censorship. Yes, if you didn’t realise it, the UK already has some basic internet censorship.
The UK model isn’t nearly as bad as what is proposed in Australia; that is, child porn is already filtered in Britain on a voluntary basis by ISP’s. As a whole I have no objection to this, but of note is that it is small scale filtering, filtering that doesn’t affect internet speeds for example.
The flow of the UK-Australia relationship isn’t one way though. The House of Lords started looking at similar internet censorship to Australia in December 2009. Even in non-censorship matters, an apology for the deportation and abuse of orphan British children to Australia has bought pressure for the UK to do something similar.
But lets look at an actual UK legal case. In the case of Harrods vs Dow Jones:
“The judge held that accord to English law, publication had taken place within the Court’s jurisdiction. This applied to both the print copies of the US edition received by subscribers in England, and, referring to (the Australian case of) Dow Jones v. Gutnick, the hits on the relevant page of the Wall Street Journal webiste, no matter how small the number of copies distributed or number of hits.”
That’s not the only one, but I highlight it because the case referred to in Australia was a highly controversial and internet based one; that is, something published in the United States was applicable under local law as it could be read on the internet. In itself, the case is highly risky, in that you could be sued for something you published in your own country about someone else in another country under their local law.
It’s not completely relevant to censorship law, but relevant in that both the UK Parliament and UK courts are willing to consider relevant Australian law and cases in justification of their decisions. Both our countries retain strong links: what happens in the UK can influence Australia, and vice versa.
Given the UK Government has already considered three strikes on downloads, and the House of Lords has already considered Australian like internet censorship, it’s not a big jump to make that the implementation of internet censorship in Australia may be used to justify similar measures in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, implementation of internet censorship in Australia will not only be used in the United Kingdom, but across not only the anglosphere, but the full range of so-called free democratic societies as well.
I’ve focused on the UK-Australia experience, but many other countries use others in justification of their proposed policies. Even if we look to the United States today, the so-called bastion of free speech, the proposed net neutrality laws exempt bittorrent traffic. While the free speech clause in the American constitution might limit a local version what is proposed in Australia, where as it could become law in the UK and across Europe, the line comes down to technicalities and the old pandoras box.
The danger here for the United Kingdom, much of Europe, and perhaps even the United States is one of precedent. Despite what you may think of Australia, this country is one of the most freest, safest, western democracies in the world. Although we may not be perfect, we don’t suffer the police state that monitors citizens via CTV in the UK, nor do we suffer from onerous laws and the risk of false imprisonment like the United States. Nor are we anything like what is shown in “The Presuasionists”. What we may be though is a pandoras box for Western democracies. Once you open that box here, the rest may well follow.
You should be concerned about what is happening here for one simple reason: you don’t want it to happen where you live. Think Communist domino theory, but with western democracies, and you’ll be close to the risk Australian censorship presents to the country you live in.
Read next: iPhone Icon Keychains