marcus westbury

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Internet Censorship and The Arts

January 22nd, 2010 by marcus

censored

Late last year the Federal Government announced that it intended to go ahead with one of the worst ideas I’ve heard in a long time. The Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy – presumably assuming Australia was distracted by Christmas and Copenhagen to notice – announced that an expensive, ineffective and intrusive filter will be installed on every Internet connection in the country.

It’s philosophically dubious and practically unworkable. It will leave artists and creative enterprises particularly vulnerable to its errors, complexities and abuses. It calls into the question the very idea of Australia as a culturally liberal western democracy that values open cultural exchange, free speech and freedom of expression. As commentators from left and right, from Australia and around the world have noted that it would put Australia in a select and dubious club whose members include China, Iran and Burma. I hope and expect that it will profoundly resisted by artists and the creative community.

In case you’ve not been following it, the problems with such a scheme are many. While a filter on the underside of the Internet may sound appealing to some but the reality will be a cultural and technological nightmare. Far from being a deterrent to terrorists and paedophiles – the government report into the technology freely admits they will have no problem getting around it – it is likely to instead be a giant pain in the arse to the rest of us.

At best the filter will prevent most Australians from viewing a relatively small number of web pages contained in a secret blacklist. The leaking of an earlier and error ridden version of the list ably demonstrated that any such list will be riddled with incompetency and fodder for endless allegations of political or ideological interference by current and future governments. It’s also way short of comprehensive: Google is indexing well over a trillion pages and growing exponentially so a manually compiled list will always be falling behind.

In the government’s trial, smart filtering software didn’t work particularly effectively either. The software managed the trifecta of slowing down the Internet (sometimes drastically), letting problematic pages slip through, and blocking many legitimate pages unintentionally (and without recourse) in the process. Also the technology is only effective for web pages and not chat rooms, peer-to-peer networks or any other current and future Internet applications where undesirables things may be lurking.

The misplaced faith of parents who trust their children to the “safe” Internet provided by such a scheme will be tabloid fodder for years to come.

All this is to say nothing of those trying to get around it.  A secure and encrypted internet connection to somewhere outside the country – a technology that corporate networks and IT professionals use every day – can bypass even the most repressive of filters entirely. Anyone who has spent any time in states with successful filters knows they don’t rely so much on technology as fear. Draconian laws that make it illegal to circumvent or discuss how to circumvent such systems are critical to their effectiveness.

For Australia as a cultural centre, if the response to last week’s announcement is anything to go by we risk becoming a laughing stock. If such a filter is enacted expect inconsistently applied rules, clumsily and mistakenly censored works and poor respect for freedom of expression to become a running joke in discussions of Australia around the world.

Artistic worth will likely remain a consideration in censorship. Effectively that means that Australia is about to embark on the bizarre project of empowering blacklisting bureaucrats to assess the artistic merit of hundreds of thousands of contentious web pages from around the world. If the Australia Council can be baffling imagine a small army of bureaucrats making judgements about what is and isn’t art and making it disappear from our internet connections accordingly.

Perversely the sheer absurdity of it means that “blocked in Australia” may well become a badge that many may wear with pride. Local and international artists will inevitably provocatively position their work at the fuzzy boundaries of political speech and censored expression under such a system. Expect the filter to spurn creative works ranging from the undergraduate and puerile to the nuanced and politically charged. The censorship of Australian arts and artists will be both tabloid fodder locally and a cause celebre for free speech advocates and the arts community internationally.

Lets hope it doesn’t come to that. I’d like to think that government has failed to consider the full ramifications of their approach. If the response online is anything to go by they’ve certainly underestimated the reaction to the policy. Australian artists could help by getting creative in opposing the legislation before they need to get creative to get around it.

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14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Emma Hawkshaw Jan 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

    “Profoundly resisted by artists and the creative community” – that’s funny Marcus. When do artists and the creative community profoundly resist anything? And more to the point, if they do resist, does anyone listen?

  • 2 fee Jan 22, 2010 at 11:56 am

    It’s not just Australian *artists* who are getting creative in their responses. Twitter (and other social networks) have been all-a-flutter about this for some time. What started with a #nocleanfeed campaign has now switched focus to a more positive branding (see http://www.pointlessreally.com/?p=87 + http://ow.ly/ZbYG).

    We don’t want to look like we are ‘against clean’, that would be silly. What we are *for* is empowerment; a positive action towards taking personal responsibility. Discuss this debate in real, plain English terminology and avoid jargon (as much as we love it!). Enable Joe Public to make their own decisions about what they should or shouldn’t let their children engage with; don’t let some religious group force through a blanket decision under the patronising guise of ‘protecting you’.

    Teach parents how to make their own computers secure, so they don’t have to ask their kids to set up the passwords. Teach the kids how to spot faceless ‘friends’ for real ones – and how to use security features and a bit of common sense!
    Show examples of the types of content that would be blocked arbitrarily by this ‘filter’. And – perhaps most important – suggest what OTHER use could be made from an unfeasibly large amount of money at a time of global economic flux. Imagine the underlying benefit of geeking up the Australian population in this way! Imagine the creative and economic growth that could result from teaching people more about the technology they carry in their pockets and use for work, rest and play.

    This isn’t about child pornography, this is about growing up and taking responsibility for the wealth of freedom we are hugely fortunate to possess… and the subsequent risks (and morons) that come with it.

    For the record, you can sign up to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s petition here http://www.efa.org.au/petition/ and if you’re a web host you can choose to protest by going dark this Australia Day http://www.internetblackout.com.au/

  • 3 fee Jan 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    plus some tips on how to make a difference: http://insidethemindoftim.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/how-to-defeat-labors-internet-censorship-a-liberal-hacks-perspective/

  • 4 Richard Wolstencroft Jan 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Hi Marcus,

    I hope we all do something about this filter. I’d be more than happy to join, campaign, etc., against this filter. I am very anti censorship on anything and everything; word, image, art, photography, etc… that is not technically illegal like material involving the abuse/harm of minors and snuff movies.

    One of the things on the Government blacklist that they wanted banned was The Abby Winters site run by G Media, an Aussie soft core porn site. It features 18 to 25 year old nude models. I read that founder Garion Hall was charged with producing illegal material (… it is illegal to make porn or it seems even nude erotica here in Victoria, an absurd law, I might add!) and child pornography ( probably because a model or two on his site had false ID, or he messed up in his age checking process… or who knows?). Anyway, the Abby Winters site looks to be a perfectly normal and harmless one of girls 18 and over without clothes like legions of others all over the web. Why is this site being black listed?

    The link is here: http://www.abbywinters.com/portal/

    I think the adding of a site like Abby Winters, whose main offense appears to be that it is erotica and made in Australia to the banned list is the thin edge of the wedge. You can see it could be applied to a vast number of legal nude sites online, including ones dealing with erotica and art.

    I feel this filter is a real and tragic death for a creative, free thinking and sexually unrepressed Australia.

    RE: Content of the censored material. When they say Sexual Violence be sure that they mean Sadomasochism and B&D. A lifestyle as legit as the homosexual one, in these times, I would strongly suggest. Which means any bondage, kinky or spanking text or images amongst consenting adults no matter how innocent, or even just erotica, can be banned. Even Bettie Page stills from Irving Klaw could be labeled Sexual Violence!

    Here is just one blog entry from a female spanking fan who realizes her own sexuality blog could and will be banned i her own country and bemoans the situation: http://michellesspankingdiary.com/?p=157

    This filter can easily be applied to imagery from the art world and to the work of people dealing in areas of transgression and sexuality. Artists whose work could be banned (…to name just a few) include: Larry Clark, Trevor Brown, the Chapman Brothers, Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, John Willie, Irving Klaw, Richard Kern, Suehiro Maruo, Toshio Saeki, De Sade, Lautreamont, Bataille, Sacher Masoch, et al…all deal with sexual violence in art, photo or text.

    What do they mean, also, by ‘other’ criminal activity? How to grow pot or drug advice sites? Pro Grafitti sites? How to circumvent the filter? Holocaust Denial? Pro Palestinian, or pro terrorist sites like ones on Hamas, or whatever else, from this controversial political field.

    The question of monitoring and regulation is another minefield.

    Also, the video game bans currently in force are crazy. It’s become a major part of 18 to 50 year old culture and now its policed and restricted in a way far more draconian than film ever was. Why?

    Your piece makes many salient points most important is that it can be circumvented by criminals anyway, which makes it implementation completely pointless. The need is there to action change from the arts community like they/we did to support Bill Henson. This issue is a much, much bigger one than the Henson issue, as it is a blanket ban on so much material, images and information. And it seems to be about to implemented with little fight from the arts community!

    This should simply not be allowed to happen.

    Best Regards

    Richard Wolstencroft
    MUFF Director and Hellfire Club founder

  • 5 Kevin Rennie Jan 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    There has been nothing so far to indicate that Conroy going to budge. Clearly he has Rudd’s full support. The points raised against the filter are unlikely to get much sympathy in populist land.

  • 6 Gloom Sydney Jan 22, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Maybe they’ll listen to Hillary?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/20/hillary-clinton-internet-freedom-speech

  • […] January 22, 2010 Marcus Westbury wrote this bemoaning the Australian internet filter. See here. […]

  • 8 Alison Croggon Jan 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Emma, thanks for the snark. So, if an artist does resist anything, it doesn’t matter anyway, because who notices? Damned if you don’t, even more damned if you do.

    Given there’s some basis to your cynicism when you speak of the so-called “creative community”, a media invention if ever there were one: enough sometimes to make me want to emigrate. But dismissing what resistances exist is both blind and self-defeating. It makes Andrew Bolt more in touch with the arts than you are.

    Yes, Richard, with you there. But how?

  • 9 Michael Heuvel Jan 25, 2010 at 12:33 am

    @ Alison as a artist myself that often meets censorship , (we paint critical paintings of amongst China see http://www.atm-art.com ) I can tell you that artist can be rather creative , mirror sites would become a option for those in Australia , that can not write or paint or in other way express them self with out feeling censorship. Tunnelling for those that would like to look outside the filter. the way it works is that you have a small program on your computer that will connect to a server outside AU , some will encrypt the feed others not , but the point is that you will be able to see / read whatever you want. This is one of the most used programs in China as youtube , facebook etc etc are blocked .

    This means that the filter is not going to work , This will also mean that most people will not care about this censorship as they can get easy around it and it will not effect them .
    and thus you will loose some basic human rights , bad luck nothing to do about it

  • 10 Michael Heuvel Jan 25, 2010 at 12:36 am

    when i posted responce 9 there was a message saying
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    it made me laugh and think that it smells a little like censorship
    😉

  • 11 Richard Wolstencroft Jan 28, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Hi Alison and posters here,

    What is to be done, is indeed the question!

    I feel some kind of organized resistance to this is required.

    It would probably need to be similar to the fight you Alison so valiantly were involved in to defend talented local artist Bill Henson. I’m not sure how that defense was organized but getting a few celebrities on board, organizing a collective of like minded members of the arts and film community to speak out on this and to write to various mInisters on behalf of whatever group is formed, etc., is a great idea and a good start.

    As I have stated I am more than happy to lend my networks and that of MUFF to this cause. I think you and Marcus could be excellent spokes people for this fight being articulate and well respected with maybe a celeb or two thrown in to grab the Murdoch and Fairfax papers attention.

    The issues involved are complex and so is the blanket defense of the no clean feed internet involved in opposing the filter. But it is necessary fight.

    There is a site here : http://nocleanfeed.com/

    This site aims to fight this.

    Maybe a group of us can join forces? Get the major film and arts people, groups, blogs and festivals involved and who knows what we might be able to achieve. Even the attempt could create interesting synergies, discussions and cross pollinations.

    Lets get something started!

    Best Regards

    Richard Wolstencroft
    MUFF Director
    http://www.muff.com.au

  • 12 marcus Jan 28, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Sorry for the long delay in replying. Moved house and just got the internet back on yesterday.

    Now sure exactly how to tackle the issue. To me the best way to do it is to go to the backbench — all the MPs that need to vote for the thing — and explain to them the absurdity of the proposal. I don’t see that it is going to be won by protest or outrage but more through explaining the poor ratio of cost (in money, time, reputation) to effectiveness (bugger all) of the scheme.

    That’s probably where i’d start but i’m spread a little too thinly to do anything other than contact the local members that i know and have dealings with – i’m part way through that process at the moment.

    Happy to be involved in campaigns of most kinds though.

  • 13 Fuck Censorship « Musing of a Madman Feb 19, 2010 at 9:52 am

    […] http://www.marcuswestbury.net/2010/01/22/internet-censorship-and-the-arts/ […]

  • 14 pastry chef Mar 5, 2011 at 4:55 am

    Sounds like something the U.S. would do.