Filtering the Internet

The truth is important. Truth, when we strip it of vested interest, is about what really is. Truth is the ally of humanity. Living without regard for what is true, for what really is, will diminish our humanity, and even endanger our survival. For this reason free speech is enormously important to our safety and the persistence of a civil society.

There are conflicting needs within a society. The right to free speech sometimes conflicts with the desirability for us to have a safe and healthy childhood. We generally agree that exposure to some things, at too young an age, can be traumatic.  It is, essentially, abusive to take a young child to an R rated movie.

My personal freedom can conflict with that of you, the reader. We generally agree that I have no right to use you as an object for my gratification. This, too, would be abuse. People are not objects to be used. They are people, persons who have intrinsic value, and equal standing and rights with all other people on the planet.

Being a society is an art. We cannot scientifically prove issues around abuse or objectification of persons with anything like the precision we can apply to the building of bridges, or even the prescription of medicine.

We all agree slavery is wrong. The precise point at which the mutual benefit of employer and employee drifts into exploitation of one by the other, is less easy to define.

Where mutual gratification begins to slide into abuse is also difficult to define, let alone legislate.  (Before any assessment is made, we have to recognise things some people find gratifying are repugnant to others. We have to learn to distinguish between our personal repugnance and actual abuse.)

Where the slapstick of The Three Stooges makes the transition from hilarious into traumatising a child, varies with age, which does not correlate in lockstep with maturity. It will also depend upon the  background of the child.  One child’s entertainment can be the traumatising of another.  How does the child of a safe and peaceful family react to Homer throttling Bart, compared to the child of a house which lives in simmering warfare? What difference does exposure to one throttling, as opposed to many, make for this child?

Establishing social norms which work for the best good of us all will always be difficult. It will always be part science and part art.

Christianity says truth is important.  To “know God” is to discover, as far as is humanly possible, what really is. This is not merely an intellectual enterprise. To “know God” also includes living in response to the reality we discover- particularly living in a way that does not privilege one person above another.

So Christianity places a high value on people being able to explore what is true.  It places high value on free expression. It sees the restriction of free speech as an assault upon humanity, for it restricts our ability to know (and tell) the truth of what is.  But Christianity is also deeply concerned for the protection and the nurture of the young and powerless. We were all once young, and the beneficiaries of a society which cared for us and protected us.

As a Christian, when I approach the issue of internet censorship proposed by the Australian government, I am conflicted. Like anyone else, I am dragged from the manageable realm of scientific theory into the difficult, opinionated world where we must struggle with the art of maintaining a civil society.

I do not want to see expression fettered and speech restricted.  I have seen colleagues sued and bullied by the rich in this country where mere truth is not a defence against libel. The prospect of the powerful not only using the legal system to gain not only their monetary advantage, but as a tool for sheer vindictiveness is very frightening.  The ability of government to use its power to silence those who would tell us the truth, and expose corruption or other evil, is reason for constant vigilance to protect free speech and expression.  I am mystified as to why so many religious people opposed a bill of rights in Australia.

Yet I am aware of the trauma one person can inflict upon another. It took months, as a teenager, for the memories of a freely available novel to fade in my memory. That nastiness of that book was trivial compared to what I can legally go and watch at the movies. It was trivial compared to what I have seen on the internet when searching for something innocent, or had delivered to my Inbox before I learned about filters, and before my ISP instituted its own spam filters that take out the worst of the scum.

Material which is likely to be traumatising, or unhealthily desensitising is available to any unsupervised child on the net, or indeed, to any child whose parental supervision is ill-informed, or careless. The fact that it is both freely available, and unremarkable, means it can be used for whatever purpose an entrepreneur decides.  This means there is a market for bodies to be photographed, and people exploited. At least the general revulsion at child pornography, and the associated jail terms, offers some little protection to those who suffer most; the models.

So at this other extreme, I feel some sympathy for the restriction of what may be published (in any form.) Some material traumatises people. It exploits people. Incitement to hatred of minorities physically endangers people. Mischievous postings on Facebook alleging paedophilia against a teacher, can end careers. Unfettered and untrue allegations, and gratuitous abuse, tarnish the life of our society.

We need ways to protect the vulnerable and the innocent. We need ways to address abuses of the freedom we have to express ourselves online. How do we arrive at a balance?  How do we develop and mature the art of being a civil society faced with the new technology of the internet? How do we discern that which is trivial from that which is a significant danger?

The Christian principle of compassion says that the key issue here is the wholeness of the person.  Issues that are to do with money, technology, convenience, and pleasure are always secondary.

It may be that money, for example, is an issue.  Enforcement costs money.  Restrictions affect profits. Filtering costs may need reimbursement to ISPs. Despite these realities, money is not more important than people. There may be great arguments about what trade-offs are necessary, but few would disagree with this basic principle.

Convenience is not more important than people.  There are claims that internet searches, and page loading times will be slowed by the proposed government scheme. People are uncertain just how significant this slowing may be. Sensibly, the filtering scheme cannot be such that it prevents videos from streaming, or makes this page into a five minute download.  But this is an issue of technology being suitable, not an issue of whether restrictions are warranted.  My convenience does exceed the right of others to be safe.

Pleasure is also not more important than people.  My desire for pleasure and entertainment does not trump your right not to be abused. It does not trump the right of our children to a safe and wholesome upbringing.

Lack of perfection is no reason not to protect people.  It is argued that internet filtering is technically flawed and can be circumvented.  This is true.  It is trivial to circumvent some filters via proxy and VPN services.  But censorship has never been fully effective.  Lady Chatterley’s lover could always be obtained despite its banning. Illegal blue movies circulated on campus when I was Uni.  Paedophile rings continue to flourish, apparently.  We do not regard that as a reason not to attempt to protect people who should be protected.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems mild by today’s standards. Some would say its restriction was a mistake.  As a society, if we are mistaken about how to proceed on an issue, do we then cease the attempt altogether, or do we seek to refine our policies and do it better? The narrowness, or the mistakes, of previous decades are not of themselves a reason not to protect people now.

These arguments are often presented under the heading “The internet is different.” For reasons of technology, or culture, or something, the internet should be exempt from restrictions. It should be open and unfettered we are told. However, there is no medium of human discourse which we do not restrict for the good of the whole society. Books, films, games, broadcasting, newspapers, face to face conversation, art exhibitions, sermons, political stump speeches, museum exhibits, advertising, use of telephones—we accept all of these are subject to restriction. We complain bitterly at media bias, and at comedians, politicians or advertising which “go too far.” We expect and demand a level of civility. The internet is simply human discourse, like every other form of discourse. It has no special claim to protection or exemption.

After all this has been said, what of Senator Conroy’s filtering plans?

I think the IT community would do well to consider the human side of the issue. It is very easy for us to be seduced by the lure of technological elegance, and to resent restrictions upon us.  We who are IT savvy have experienced something akin to a frontier culture in recent years, and have been happy to be the winners, forgetting those who have suffered from the new technologies.

Churches and other groups concerned with protection of people, need to work hard to distinguish between what is legitimate protection, and what is inherited puritanism. Too often one suspects the church is just plain scared of sex, or hostile to sex, rather than really being concerned with child protection, or the maintenance of a civil society.

Senator Conroy and the government would do well to making the scheme transparent.  I would feel much more comfortable if I could see that interference with politically sensitive sites was not occurring.  Why does the list, given that the sites will be filtered, have to be secret?

All of us should be suspicious of both government and Google representatives.  Each group have huge vested interests that have to do with money and prestige and power. The larger the institution, the more likely it is to abuse the person, even if unintentionally.

What shall we do?

In this new internet age children film each other having sex, drive each other to suicide, libel innocent teachers, and are lured to their death via Facebook predators.  That’s just the children. Adults are conned out of small fortunes, traumatised by vindictive colleagues and former partners, and at the same time contribute to the whole mess by refining the children’s (mostly) immature activities into money making business and organised crime.
None of this will be addressed by Senator Conroy’s filter. Most of it is just the normal un-pretty face of human society gone online, and sometimes, it seems, gone viral.

Perhaps rather than beginning with censorship technologies, we should begin the debate by refreshing ourselves about our responsibilities to each other, even down to  why simple things like manners are important.  Such simple things as respect and compassion are at the base of this issue.  In Adelaide recently, a front page article highlighted the predatory renting scams which are rampant in the city. I was stunned by the lack of compassion for people trapped at the bottom of society in so many of the comments under this article. If we lack, or do not care about basic compassion, how can we claim to address such important issues as the restriction and the maintenance of free speech?

Why would we leave this fundamental level of the debate to the frightened conservatives who are trying to make themselves safe by making us all like them!?

This morning was notable for badly behaved drivers.  I ride 30 kilometres to work, and normally find Adelaide commuters extraordinarily polite to me on my pushbike. This morning was startlingly different from normal, with grumpy drivers consistently passing far too close, and cutting in on me. Maybe it was just that both Adelaide’s national football teams lost this weekend!  But if we do not care about what effects our emotional balance, or worse, are of unconscious of it, how can we claim to address such important issues as the restriction and the maintenance of free speech, and the protection of the powerless?

Why would we embark on such an important debate without clarifying what is driving us?

When we look at the basis of our lives together as a society, we can see attacking the government at the level of technology, or affordability fails to see the real issues at stake. We might also question why it is that for so many of us “the internet is different.” We accept the need for some censorship of freedoms.  We complain vociferously when our own boundaries are insulted, or when our own six year olds question us about longer lasting sex. Why is the internet different?

And if this debate is really firing us up, why is that?  What is driving us?


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