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Winning the war against Internet censorship

By David Jackmanson - posted Monday, 17 November 2008

The Labor Government is planning to censor Australia's Internet by forcing Internet Service Providers to block some sites so that Internet users can't see them. There is a great deal of opposition to this plan, and much of that opposition refuses to take into account the legitimate fears of some people about objectionable material online. Because of that, there is a danger that the plan, which deserves to fail, might succeed.

The Federal Minister who has carriage of the censorship plan, Senator Stephen Conroy, has faced a great deal of criticism. He has been dishonest in claiming that other countries have similar systems, and acted like an intellectual thug in implying that anyone opposed to the plan is in favour of child pornography. However, the criticism aimed at him is not doing the cause of a free Internet any good at all. Senator Conroy is choosing to appeal to social conservatives, and when social liberals and progressives attack him, it means he can point to us and say to his supporters "Look at who I'm standing up against - the very people who are taking the country in the wrong direction". This gets him more credibility with his support base.

At the moment, it looks like the censorship plan will fail, because both the Liberal-National Coalition and the Greens are against it. With both those blocs voting against the plan, the Government will not have the numbers to get the plan through the Senate. We need to dig a little deeper here, and look at the position inside the Coalition.


We can assume there are two types of people in the Coalition: those who support big business, and those who support a socially conservative position, including Internet censorship. Since the Coalition has announced that it is going to oppose censorship, we can assume that the big business faction, which sympathises with the ISPs and doesn't support censorship, has the upper hand at the moment. If that changes - if the social conservatives were to get the upper hand - then the Coalition would vote for the plan, and we would be stuck with Internet censorship.

Therefore, opponents of the censorship plan need to focus their attention on the socially conservative voters who might support censorship, and other people who have real concerns about protecting their families from the bad side of the Internet. Talking to these people means we need to do far more than sneer at their concerns, or mock them with the over-used phrase "Somebody think of the children!", which is the misconceived title of one of the leading blogs opposed to Internet censorship.

Instead, we need to take socially conservative people seriously and convince them that there are other solutions to their worries than central censorship of the Internet. For instance, we can point them to sites like which offer free filtering software, or other paid filtering options.

As Mark Newton, a leading campaigner against Internet censorship has pointed out, the government is cancelling the scheme, put in place by the Howard government, where people could get free filtering software from the government. We can also explain to people that it is the most popular Internet sites, that everyone uses - sites like EBay, Amazon, mainstream media, sites offering cheap airfares, job hunting sites and so on - that will be slowed down. We need to let people who are worried about the Internet know that they will be badly affected. At the moment all they hear is people they have nothing in common with complaining that pornography is going to be harder to see. That's not going to win them over.

Of course, we are not going to be able to win over every single social conservative, or every single person who is worried about what their children might find on the Internet. But we must do our best to divide these people - we need to find the people who are prepared to listen to reasonable arguments, and do everything we can to convince them. To do this, we'll need to be respectful and serious, even though these people will have opinions and assumptions that are very different to our own.

People who oppose censorship of the Internet on principle are angry at the Government for proposing this regressive scheme, and their anger is justified. But we can't win this struggle if we act merely out of anger, if all we do is find people who agree with us and tell each other how terrible this plan is. We need to do the real work of politics: find people who disagree with us, and convince some of them that we are right. If we don't do that, we are in danger of letting this plan get through - and that would be a tragedy.

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About the Author

David Jackmanson is a blogger from Brisbane. He is a contributor to Strange Times, a blog which examines what it means to be left-wing and progressive today.

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

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