Australia should sink its great barrier plan
WIRED:Some Australian politicians are misguidedly attempting to set up a national internet blockade similar to that of China
THERE IS some pretty horrific stuff out there on the internet – and various wings of the Australian government are demonstrating all the wrong ways of dealing with it.
Take Encyclopedia Dramatica, the current target of the Australian government’s ire.
Encyclopedia Dramatica is a website made by and for “trolls”: internet users who gain their kicks from verbally tormenting others. It is like a Wikipedia of everything that is most likely to annoy or upset anyone, from targeted articles on fellow trolls to broad swipes at racial groups, people with disabilities or any other obvious target.
One page is devoted to insults aimed at Australian Aboriginals and it is this, following complaints, that the Australian Human Rights Commission has sought to stop.
The commission’s first step was to persuade Google to remove the page from its search results. Under Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, it is unlawful for a person to perform any public act that is likely to offend, insult or humiliate another person if the act is done because of the race, colour, or national or ethnic origin of the other person.
Google complied with Australian law by removing
the page from its index on its Australian site (google.com.au). It is still available, a click away, at google.com.
Google’s Australian version notes that some entries have been removed, and points to the complaint from the Human Rights Commission.
The commission’s second step was to write to Encyclopedia Dramatica directly and threaten to charge the apparent owner under Australian law.
Encyclopedia Dramatica and its owner are based in the US.
What has been the end result of this action?
Thanks to the plentiful news coverage of the blocking of Encyclopedia Dramatica in Australia, the number of Australians who might stumble on the site’s Aboriginal page has increased by a factor of thousands.
Finding it is as trivial as switching from the localised Australian Google page to the US version. The link itself is mentioned in most online versions of the story.
The owner of the website cannot now visit Australia without risking arrest, but the site itself continues to be available and visible for Australians.
The only measure the government could take to prevent Australians from reading this page, full of abuse that crassly imitates racist tropes found in Australian and American history, is to set up some kind of national blockade similar to that pursued by countries such as China and Vietnam.
And, as a matter of fact, this is exactly what some Australian politicians have been attempting to construct.
Led by senator Stephen Conroy, a socially conservative member of the ruling Labour Party, the current government plans to introduce a “Great Firewall of Australia” law before June.
The measures will include mandatory blocks for all Australian internet service providers based on a similar classification system to that for films and videogames.
If passed, it will be the most far-reaching internet censorship system implemented by a western democracy so far. The banned sites list will not only include child pornography (as many informally run European blocks do), but any site that fails to pass Australia’s adult classification system.
Oddly enough, Australia already has a wide-ranging blocking system in place, although few know about it.
In 1999, the government passed an amendment that permits the Australian Communications and Media Authority to take down or put on a blacklist any site containing “unsuitable” content that does not include an age verification.
The blacklist is used in voluntary consumer filtering software, although hardly anyone uses it.
Local webpages that have been demanded to be taken down include anti-abortion information sites. Foreign sites have included whistleblower site WikiLeaks. But it then went ahead and published the entire secret blacklist, which included Wikipedia pages, sites for fringe religions, and even the website of a tour operator and Queensland dentist.
Australia’s government and regulatory systems are straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel.
In an attempt to eliminate a fraction of the offensive pages on the internet, they are building systems that will be, and already have been, misused to block legitimate political expression.
At the same time, the country effectively provides an example of hypocrisy for China and other regimes to throw back in the West’s face whenever it lectures those countries on their pervasive censorship.
Given its huge brief – to prevent any act which might hurt anyone for reasons of racism – the Australian Human Rights Commission must be selective in what it pursues and who it might prosecute.
Sending the censors in where they have no power, and sending powerless letters to trolls in their basements, does no one any good.
The commission might better serve its aims by hunting those who throw more than just names around on the internet.
There is plenty of racism to go around, and the material that goes beyond words on a web page to actual acts of discrimination better befits the commission’s noble aims.