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The perplexing Internet debate

By Mark Newton - posted Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ever since public computer networks burst onto the scene in the 1980's, the subject of online content regulation has been a controversial one.

Successive governments of all stripes have considered the issue, and largely looked upon the free-ranging exchange of networked content with disapproval, if not outright disdain. Nearly 20 years ago the Senate Select Committee into Online Services produced a frightening raft of predictions about the societal decay that'd naturally extend from the public's exposure to material common in the BBS (Bulletin Board System) world, and various repetitions of the effort have drawn the same conclusions ever since.

Unfortunately for the censorship advocates, our own experience tells us that all the predictions of doom, destruction and despair have been wrong.


We've now experienced 20 years of ubiquitous access to the Internet, and have brought up a whole generation of jacked-in kids, who have grown up into responsible parents themselves.

These people are completely comfortable with the Internet, having grown up using Google to assist with their physics homework, keeping in touch with their friends all over the world with email, exchanging happy-snaps of their holidays on blogs and Facebook, and inhaling information from the inexhaustible reservoir of sometimes crass, but often invaluable content on the World Wide Web.

The Australian public has acclimatised themselves to the Internet, and adapted both their lives and the network itself to suit their lifestyles. Australian parents are comfortable with the Internet, barring some background-radiation levels of anxiety, quelled by means of a straightforward dose of supervision and PC filtering software. In a world which has featured nearly three decades of uncensored access to online services, to advocate for handing it over to government control is a radical position.

Which is why this latest resurrection of the online censorship debate is so perplexing.

When Senator Alston last raised the issue in 1999, the Internet was still a scary place that hardly anyone had experienced. Nobody in Australia had seen a URL on a bus ad, or posted their baby videos on YouTube. It was easy to stir up "moral panic" about Internet content because hardly anyone knew what it was, and the speakers with the loudest megaphones were the politicians doing the stirring.

But in 2008? Not so much.


Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has brought the issue up again, and much to his apparent surprise it doesn't seem to be tracking as well as it has in the past.

Not only does everyone know that the Internet isn't frightening or uncontrollable; not only do the population's own experiences clash with the Minister's hysterical allusions to unrestricted access to child pornography; but, much to the Minister's apparent astonishment, he doesn't even have the loudest voice anymore.

In the past, politicians have been able to shut-down debate by casting McCarthyist slurs which compare opponents to child pornographers: but when Mr Conroy used the same tactic in Senate Estimates on October 20, the blogosphere's incredulous ridicule seeped through into the commercial media, yielding headlines about the Minister's disgraceful debasement of the public discourse.

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About the Author

Mark Newton is a Network Engineer at a large Australian Internet Service Provider, and has been working on, in and for the Internet since 1989. He specialises in large-scale high-performance networks, and is a subject matter expert in what have been come to be known as "filtering technologies". He appears herein speaking only for himself.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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