A look at continuing censorship efforts

by Andy Oram

A university student from Australia asked me to comment on Internet
censorship, with a focus on the impact of broadband. Of all the
countries normally counted in the "Western, democratic"
civilization-mush, Australia has been the most intrusive in passing
laws requiring Internet sites to register with a government body,
conform to decency laws, etc. Specifically, the correspondent asked

With the introduction of broadband and the increased capabilities it
provides,will current Australian censorship laws be of any noticeable

My answer follows.

I would like to start with a story that is not quite
on-topic, but which may provide an interesting perspective
and which you can share in your report if you like.

It became front-page news in the Boston newspapers last
Thursday when the well-known and very opinionated chancellor
of Boston University, John Silber, decided without
discussion to revoke the charter of a Gay/Straight Alliance
at a high school that was operating on the campus. He said
that a group discussing sexuality has no place in a school
with students as young as eighth grade.

As a parent of a high school student in this academy, I
attended an informational session a couple nights ago where
we learned that:

  1. Members of the Gay/Straight Alliance were still meeting,
    were still using school facilities, and were still being
    advised by faculty members, all under the approval of
    Dr. Silber. The only difference now was that the group
    didn't exist officially (which rules out certain formal
    events and school funding, but these are minor effects).

  2. Like most schools, the high school has mandatory sex
    education for ninth graders, which Dr. Silber knows about
    and approves.

  3. The high school's headmaster and faculty are organizing
    school meetings to discuss many social and political issues,
    including the roles of gay/lesbian/bisexual people (the
    subject of the banned Gay/Straight Alliance).

So what has changed? A few formal restrictions. The whole
thing does not seem to merit the media hoopla that
Dr. Silber caused. We do not know why he did it, but it
might well seem to the casual observer that Dr. Silber
revoked the charter deliberately to cause media hoopla. And
that he choose an action that would have minimal actual
impact on students or the school. One could speculate
further that he used the small area over which he holds
dominion in order to publicize his conservative views, which
cover the supposed use of inappropriate sexual images in
mass media.

A lot of speculation there. But one could apply similar
lessons to your first question. Any "noticeable impact"? No,
I don't think the laws will have any impact. The various
laws passed in the U.S. along these lines (from the
Communications Decency Act onward) would be only slightly
more effective, had they been upheld in court. Thus, one can
reasonably treat the laws as mere declarations that the
supporters don't like what's happening to society.

But what is their alternative? If there is no talk about
sexual functions, does that mean women should silently live
with date rape, that gays should furtively meet in
bathrooms, that teenagers should have unprotected sex? If
there is no public airing of racist views, won't the
proponents simply continue to recruit by word of mouth,
prettify their message with euphemisms, and exploit their
sense of persecution to bolster their forces? (See my article
Nazis, Neos, and Other Nasties On the Net for a fuller explanation.) These are the
consequences of a ban, but would-be moralists refuse to
accept their role in them.

There should also be no illusion that censorship will stop
with new media like the Internet. Right-wingers just pick on
it because the businesses depending on it have less clout
than other media. The movie and music industry, to their
credit, have proven very dedicated and resolute during
recent years in rejecting regulation of their content. But
they are in the cross-hairs of people who want to rein in
the Internet.

The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996, and
that's already a different era in terms of Internet use.
Censorship of the Internet becomes more difficult as it
reaches more people in every company and becomes more a
fixture in their lives. And that is where your question
about broadband becomes relevant.

The issues of what content passes over the Internet remain
pretty much the same in a broadband era, but in the new era
people keep their connections on all the time, use the
Internet for more communications, and download larger files.
In other words, whatever they do that you like, and whatever
they do that you don't like, will both increase.

This might lead to a small increase in downloading erotic
pictures, but the biggest impact we've seen so far is to
make the unauthorized exchange of copyrighted material
(music, movies, and software) an even bigger social issue
than the exchange of socially offensive material. And both
Congress and the courts have succeeded in imposing
restrictions on Internet use in this area, where they have
not done so where erotic content and hate speech are
involved--a rather perverse result in itself, as Prof.
Lawrence Lessig has often pointed out.

Broadband doesn't allow anything new that wasn't done
before. Nor does it make it easier for people to elude
detection, whether they're sharing music files or child
pornography. But it simply makes more people interested in
exchanging copyrighted material, so it brings these
possibilities to the attention of the companies affected and
creates in them a sense of panic that leads to legal
action. Ironically, then, the forces most successful at
holding back censorship when it affects their content are
also most rabid in demanding censorship when it affects their
business models.

What lies behind attempts at Internet censorship in democratic countries?