Line between censors and sensibility a clear one

You cannot learn from books you’ll never read or be inspired by ads you’ll never see.

The insidiousness of censorship is its invisibility. Banned books don’t leave outlines where they should be on library shelves. Banned political ads don’t announce their presence on TV or radio with the crackle of dead air.

That’s why censorship is the province of authoritarians: silence breeds ignorance, fear and shame – the most effective forms of control.

For much of the 20th century, Australia had the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most zealous censors. After a period of openness that started in the Whitlam era, the war on terrorism returned us to our love of banning. Stephen Conroy’s internet filter, while deferred, has not been forgotten. The senator’s spokesman says the Gillard government is still “committed to introducing legislation” that will block all “refused classification” content from an entire nation of consenting adults. This is set to happen sometime after next January.

If parents want to lock down their home computers, denying themselves and their children access to certain images and information, that’s their prerogative. They should also have the right to block commercial advertising to their kids.

Sure, filters don’t work well and many older children can get around them. But if, in the face of these facts, parents still prefer technology to block content, rather than undertaking the more difficult process of educating their children about the different types of content on the web, that’s their choice.

What they should not be allowed to decide is what other adults, and those adults' children, do in the face of online informational plenty.

What is the mandatory filter likely to block? We won’t know for certain because the banned list is banned.

But it is unlikely to focus on the evil used to justify it – child-abuse sites. These will already be blocked, in line with a new voluntary code of practice adopted by Australian internet service providers to block all child-abuse material on the Interpol blacklist. The refused-classification list revealed in 2009 offers clues. It contained the gambling sites, porn sites, Wikipedia entries and pages on Satanism. Nothing illegal, in other words, but plenty that is politically inconvenient or offensive to religious morals.

Anything that “sexualises” or “pornifies” anything is also likely to wear a bullseye. Voluntary euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke’s instructions on medically assisted suicide may also be in the firing line, given the banning of his book The Peaceful Pill Handbook.

Examples suggest it won’t just be information on performing voluntary euthanasia that will be banned but the mention of its name.

Last year Commercials Advice banned an ad encouraging Australians to be politically active on the voluntary euthanasia issue on the spurious grounds that it depicted, promoted or encouraged suicide. When ads with atheist messages such as “Celebrate Reason” were banned in 2008 – from the same buses that regularly spruiked biblical verses – no cogent explanation was given.

Comforting. Or terrifying, depending on how much you want this government, or the next, to make secret, arbitrary decisions about what you get to see and read.

Publication history

Line between censors and sensibility a clear one   The Sunday Sun-Herald