Archive for January, 2010

It can’t happen here… but it did!

January 18, 2010
Free Speech, originally uploaded by Pam Rosengren.

For me, the issue of internet censorship goes back to before the internet even existed. This piece of history isn’t taught in schools and seems to have been largely forgotten, so I will briefly talk about it here.

The declaration of a State of Emergency in Queensland in the 1970s under Joh Bjelke-Peterson meant that our political and environmental protests were suddenly transformed into a struggle for basic freedom of speech. It first became illegal to carry posters, then it became illegal to march in the streets. Ciaron O’Reilly* (pictured above, in Bundaberg in the early 1980s) was one of the people who did jail time for the crime of assembling in a group greater than three.

Now that won’t happen again, you say. The street march ban has been repealed. But unfortunately, it could. A State of Emergency can be declared at any time, by someone as lowly as a Justice of the Peace. That happened during the Palm Island riots. Then all those old statutes can be brought into effect. Lex Wootton was charged under the colonial statutes of Riot and Affray, and faced a life sentence – which mercifully he did not get.

OK we probably won’t be rioting, and anyway what is the connection with internet censorship? The connection is the vague definition of “Refused Classification” (RC) content, and what concerns me most is the part about instruction in crime.

The notion of crime changes over time.

Some things become decriminalised after a period of public discourse and as society grows tolerant of particular things: in Queensland in the 1970s homosexuality was a crime, and so was prostitution. The latter had to be legalised because of widespread police corruption.

Grey areas exist where people disagree about what constitues crime – for example street art is seen as a valid and necessary form of artistic expression by some (including me), whereas to others it is only vandalism.

Sometimes detailed instruction in crime can have a public benefit. A case in point is instruction in safe injecting of illegal drugs, to protect against hepatitis B, C and HIV. There should be no restriction of access to this.

New laws are enacted as society changes, and the interpretation of existing laws may become more rigid. This is where Conroy’s proposed internet censorship becomes a major worry. When I read the news over the last few days, I see a disturbing trend in definitions of crime that forms the real-life context for this proposed censorship. Three are in Australia, one is overseas.

The first is a change to the film classification act in South Australia, which came into effect on January 10, 2010. All R-rated movies for sale or rent must be in plain packaging and no posters or pamphlets may be displayed in the shops. Film distributors found out about this change after the event. Films such as Apocalypse Now and Mad Max are R-rated.

The second is a proposed change to the Crimes Act (s 91H(4)) in New South Wales which would take away the defence of artistic merit when in possession of images or words that appear to sexualise persons “under 16 or who looks like a child under 16”. The problem with “appear to sexualise” is that this crime is very much in the eye of the beholder. I am thinking of the Bill Henson case, where the police regarded the images as pornography whereas they were ultimately classified as safe for children.

The third is in Italy, where the Berlusconi government is proposing a law that will require Italians to get an “uploader’s licence” in order to put any moving images on the internet. Under this law uploads will require ministerial authorisation. Opposition Democratic Party spokesman Paolo Gentiloni told a press conference that the government was “also keen to restrict the uncontrollable circulation of information over the Internet to preserve its monopoly over television news”.

Back to Australia for the fourth one. The government of Western Australia is proposing anti-association laws. Hundreds of people attended a rally to protest this at the weekend. The attorney-general says the laws would only be used to combat organised crime. That is not the experience we had in Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen, where the definition of crime was stretched so far that when a Bundaberg dentist, Harry Akers, announced he and his dog were staging a protest march down a local street at midnight the cops turned up en masse.

I hope that you now understand the past and present contexts of my concerns about internet censorship. Thank you for reading this.

*update June 4 21012 – I dissociate myself from Ciaron’s recent public outburst of violence. That is not the Ciaron I knew.