Unbridled Cynicism

less bullshit, more often?

Debate on govt. internet censorship

I attended a debate last night on the motion, “Governments should not censor the internet”. The debates themselves are a regular event organised by IQ2, and I commend them for a lively and interesting evening.

For someone like myself, the outcome and opinion on this topic is a foregone conclusion. That said, I found it a worthwhile exercise to re-frame the issue and consider things with a different perspective.

Affirmative:

  • Ross LaJeunesse - public policy and govt. affairs - Google Asia
  • David Marr - journo
  • Antony Loewenstein - freelance journo and author

Negative:

  • Kaiser Kuo - Chinese American columnist and commentator in Beijing
  • Alastair MacGibbon - Internet Safety Institute, ex-AFP
  • Elizabeth Handsley - FlindersU assoc-dean of law, VP of ACCM, mother

I’m familiar with David Marr and Antony Loewenstein, so I’ve got a strong bias towards the Affirmative, nevermind my existing beliefs.

The affirmative presented a much more compelling argument, as well as being stronger presenters. Marr in particular has a stunningly powerful delivery and composure, while maintaining a warm and good-humored vibe. LaJeunesse was competent but I ultimately didn’t feel a strong connection. Loewenstein was good and engaging, but I sometimes felt he was erring towards being emotive, and less rational.

The latter point was noted by the Negative, in questioning his assertion that “the internet filters in other countries have had zero effect”. Indeed this was not backed up with any cited sources, nor any details on how this may have been ascertained.

Kuo formed a solid initial argument for a purer application of the term “censorship”, and gave me something to think about. If I had to be honest, I felt MacGibbon came across as too blustery and politician-ish, with an imbalance of rhetoric vs. substance, but the points were reasonable. Handsley’s arguments were well presented and substantial, but didn’t feel as coherent with the rest of her team.

As soon as Kuo took the floor it was evident that the thrust of each side would not necessarily be towards each other. It was quickly agreed that noone on stage would endorse the proposed Cleanfeed filter for Australia, so the argument was reinterpreted a little. The affirmative case focused on the idea of an internet filter for Australia. The negative case revolved around the argument that censorship, in the purer sense of the term, should be applied to the internet as it is in the physical reality.

This is a flawed interpretation, but also an interesting point to consider. It’s true that I can’t go to the local library and find books providing assistance on euthanasia. It’s true that I won’t find literature encouraging terrorism or teaching me how to make bombs (actually, the Anarchist Cookbook might be legal anyway). And, wait for it, I can’t walk into a newsagent and buy child pornography.

These are true facts, and I don’t find them entirely disagreeable. Laws are not made to arbitrarily restrict and control; we have laws to keep society functioning, and they’re meant to be an expression of our collective values. Our laws are by no means perfect, but the illegality of an action or object says something about what society believes as a whole.

This is where the negative arguments fail for me. Censorship isn’t always a bad thing, but one has to be practical. This is the internet: there’s little applicability of local juris-my-diction. It’s not the same as the offline reality. People don’t expect it to be like the offline world. We do behave differently online, for better or worse.

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance. I believe the OFLC performs an important role, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of freedom to choose what we expose ourselves to, and under what circumstances. This is relevant because a lot of the media we’re exposed to is pushed towards us. You can only avert your eyes so much before it gets hard to function in society; classification gives you that choice.

A similar argument applies to the internet. The difference is that classification and censorship isn’t really a viable solution there.

The presenters take a poll of the audience before and after the debate. 72% of the audience voted in favour of the motion prior to the debate, with a roughly even split between opposition and don’t-know. At the conclusion of the debate, 70% of the audience was still in favour of the motion, while many of the don’t-know attendees had chosen to side with the opposition. Some 5% of the audience were still undecided.

As I expected, a lot of audience appeared to be older members of the public (“much older than me”). I reason that these are people more likely to be interested in a public debate, and sufficiently motivated to attend and pay the ticket price. Not that there weren’t younger people there as well; my row of seats had half a dozen people I’d guess to be around 30yoa. One of the attendees who stood up to present their views was probably 18-20, and there was a small school group present as well.

I suspect a lot of people weren’t really sure about the idea of the filter in general. Listening to the debate gave them enough meaningful information to actually form an opinion based on their own values and experience, which would explain a large shift from Don’t-know to Opposed. Both teams did well, and it’s to the Negative’s credit that they managed to steal some opinions away from the Affirmative (assuming you ignore the pathological case in which attendees only moved don’tknow->opposed and favour->don’tknow).