After all the macho posturing and endlessly-repeated bloodly-minded determination to ignore outraged public opinion, the Australian government is now suddenly back-tracking on its much-vaunted and virulently-criticised plan to pass legislation that would impose Orwellian levels of censorship on the Internet browsing habits of its citizens, writes Martyn Warwick.
Yesterday, in a subdued performance that, for those listening at least, made a pleasant change from his usual "I know better than you do, so shut-up" stridency, the Australian minister of communications, Stephen Conroy, told a Senate estimates committee that the mandatory Internet filtering system that the Rudd administration has been so single-mindedly pursuing may, after all, turn out in the end to be no more than a "voluntary industry code".
However, the change of tack isn't so much the result of a change of heart on the part of the government. It is more of a pragmatic response to political reality. The Rudd administration doesn't have the support it needs in the Australian Upper House to push through the controversial legislation and, rather than abandoning its proposed censorship regime altogether, has decided to go for an optional system that could later become mandatory should the necessary second chamber support suddenly materialise.
Facing persistent questioning by the opposition's shadow minister of communications, Nick Minchin, Stephen Conroy trimmed the government's hitherto adamant stance and accepted that Australian ISPs may be allowed to make Web content filtering voluntary. He said, "While mandatory ISP filtering could involve legislation, a voluntary approach could be available to ISPs."
Obviously speaking off-the-cuff and seeming to make up policy on the fly, Conroy's arguments were as tortured as his English. He added, "One option is potentially legislation. One other option is that it could be voluntary basis that they could voluntarily agree to introduce it." Ah, the beauty and economy of the language of Shakespeare.
Shadow minister Minchin leapt on this government volte-face and asked why this was the first time the Australian people has heard that the hard-line determination to impose Internet censorship by law has been softened to such an extent that might now be voluntary.
Stephen Conroy replied, "Well, they [the ISPs] could agree to all introduce it."
In the run up to the last general election the Labor party included in its manifesto a pledge to protect Australian web user from sites featuring child pornography and "instructions in how to commit crimes."
However, as these things have a habit of doing, once in office the censorship remit was unilaterally expanded by the new government to include gambling sites, pages from Wikipedia, sites focusing on religions and sects that fall outside the mainstream of popular/orthodox Australian beliefs, various business sites (including, infamously, a dentist) and ordinary non-extreme sex sites of the sort that, even though few are ever prepared to talk about it, actually make much of the Internet world go round.
The Rudd government is currently overseeing a trail of filtering technology with nine Australian ISPs and 30,000 subscribers. The experiment ends in August and a government report will follow thereafter.
Remarkably for a nation that makes much of being a freedom-loving, go-ahead democracy, the Australian Communications and Media Authority's "blacklist' of prohibited websites is actually a state secret and publication of it is a criminal offence.
However - and inevitably - the contents of the list have been leaked and the names of some companies ad organisations on it amply demonstrate that the proposed legislation is ill-conceived, partial, badly thought out and drafted, open to all sorts of abuses and mismanagement and would be impossible to police in practice.
In Australia the debate around Internet filtering is becoming more and more polarised. Technicians and online user groups maintain that any attempt to censor the Web via legislation is dictatorial and shows that the government has no idea of how the Internet really works. Thus, they say, any law would be bound to fail. On the other hand religious conservatives and those of an authoritarian bent pre-disposed to turn the Lucky Country into an outpost of North Korea maintain that the government's policy does not go far enough.
Meanwhile, the government, stung by unrelenting criticism and in the knowledge that it cannot force the legislation through the Upper House, is now also saying that it is "minded" to have the secret blacklist reviewed by a panel of eminent Australians.
Unfortunately though Rolf Harris, Clive James and Germaine Greer are otherwise engaged with projects in Britain. Of course, Rupert Murdoch may be available (despite the fact that he has taken US citizenship) as might John Pilger, (although there's little doubt that he would not support such blatant authoritarianism of the type being proposed) otherwise it'll have to be a panel comprising Bruce Beresford, Baz Luhrmann, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Peter Weir and a photograph of Dame Nellie Melba. Good luck.
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