Our feelings about Internet censorship are quite simple. We, and I speak for the majority of the online community, not just for the Freedom of Information Association, don t want a bar of it. Not the ignorant, draconian, and purblind criminal sanctions of the United States Communications Decency Act or the Australian Attorneys-General; nor a bureaucratic morass of codes of conduct and complaints tribunals administered by the Australian Broadcasting Authority. We oppose even self- regulation, if that is to mean the enforcement by Internet users and administrators of rules imposed on us by governments.
The global village that is the Internet has its own rules and its own methods of enforcing them rules and sanctions which have been developed over the decades of the Net s existence and which reflect its technological and social realities in a way alternatives imposed from outside cannot. Two completely different ideas are often conflated in the term censorship, as it applies to the context of the Internet. The first, which I will call filtering, enables individuals to protect themselves from material they may find offensive; the second censorship proper is the attempt to ban certain kinds of information completely. While the first is achievable and more practical, the latter is not.
The Australian Broadcasting authority has gone half way to recognising that protection of individuals from questionable material is possible without censorship. What they have not acknowledged is that it is possible without any government intervention at all (as stated by Kristul). Decisions about what individuals wish to avoid can only be made by them. The idea of an Australian ratings service therefore is ridiculous, because variation in community standards is greater within countries than between them. Some will prefer ratings set by churches; others will rely on universities for their ratings. No centralised system can provide this flexibility. But what about censorship proper, the idea that certain kinds of information are intrinsically evil and should be banned?
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Such a reality was depicted in George Orwell s 1984: By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit Don t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible because there will be no words with which to express it Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. But is this work merely fictional? In 1996, an attempt was made to pass the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime punishable by two years in prison and a $250,000 fine to transmit indecent material over the Internet to minors.
The legislation defined indecency as material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs. In a victory for everyone who uses computer communications, a three judge panel in Philadelphia s Federal Court struck down the Communications Decency Act on the 12 June 1996, ruling in a unanimous decision that it violates the US constitutional guarantees of free speech and of the press. In its conclusion, the Federal Court said: As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects. The reasons why this sort of Orwellian censorship can t work are both technological and sociological.
The technological reasons include the sheer volume of data traffic, the difficulty of analysing end to end traffic in the middle of a datagram network, and the existence of freely available military grade encryption software. The social reasons include the ability of individuals to publish materials without going through publishers, the need to protect the privacy of individuals, and the free speech ethos of the net. A prime example of this is provided by the German government s attempt to block access to the web sites of Holocaust revisionists. This can only be described as a dismal failure the material in question is more widely available now than ever and received most unfortunate publicity as a result of the affair.
The most effective response to this sort of material is either to ignore it or refute it. It is our conviction, therefore, that there is no place for any form of censorship on the Internet. There is an old saying that the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. That is to take a technical perspective on the issue. If we take a social perspective, then, since the raison d tre of the Internet is sharing information, censorship is nothing less than a crime. Or perhaps when carried out by governments an act of war. Governments didn t build the Internet, they don t own it, and they can t control it - they'll have to learn to live with it.
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