It can’t happen here… but it did!

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 The street march ban has been repealed.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.


5 Responses to “It can’t happen here… but it did!”

  1. Kay Says:

    What can I say about life under the Bjelke Petersen government? I was genuinely scared about joining the street marches – you looked up at any of the buildings to see men in suits with cameras. Those of us on scholarships to university were told the scholarships could be cancelled if we ended up with a police record. Censorship back then? In Australia there were D notices all over the place… The novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in England was apparently (finally) approved for publication in hard cover but not in paperback (the concept of porn-fuelled crime was only tied to the working class).

    Those were the days… but hey, we can enjoy them all over again. History repeats? Betcha Bjelke it does.

  2. Maz Says:

    So do we march on the streets? Burn parliment house to the ground? Cull the people who vote for the people who think its a good idea to tell us what they think we shoud watch, hear, or read?

    As crap as it is, no one seems to care much. Telling your local member that you don’t support their censorship laws appears to fall on deaf ears.

  3. robert shippey Says:

    the first amemdment could that be stretched to film advertising for R movies? for the second a large freportion of anime and other novels could easily be viewed as illegal if this is true. if you are looking for somthing it is easily to be blinkered into seeing it.

  4. Pam Rosengren Says:

    Kay – those men in suits with cameras are what made me go wrong in the first place. I went to an innocent meeting to (ha! – we hoped) get us a more humane and worthwhile secondary education. Those guys were in an apartment overhead, and it made me so angry. I remember the D-notices – Richard Neville named a section of his newspaper Oz after those.

    Maz – Resistance can seem futile, but back in the 70s/80s we did have our victories. The Joh regime went down, Vietnam ended, the Franklin River is still wild (and yes, under threat again). There will be another anti-censorship street rally for what it is worth. We are figuring out ways to get across to the average person why this matters so much, and are encouraging people to send snail mail to the parliamentarians because that is where they are at and it all adds up. Electronic Frontiers Australia has an online petition also.

    Robert – Australia doesn’t have a Bill of Rights, let alone any amendments that guarantee the right to peacable assembly or to free speech. Our Constitution is an Act of British parliament. There is a movement to try to get a Bill of Rights. I agree we need one. And yes, you are right about anime potentially falling into the illegal category especially under that proposed change to New South Wales legislation – “any depiction” includes cartoons.

    It is interesting that in the last couple of days, since the Google-China incident, the USA has stated that it is committed to a free and open internet. Hillary Clinton is talking about providing censorship evasion software . I wonder if the US position on internet censorship will have any impact on the Australian government’s stance.

  5. Maz Says:

    Came across an article that shows they’re already expanding their blacklist beyond what they said it’d cover. And beyond the scope of their trials.

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