‘Digital Natives’ take on censorious Kevin

Rudd has been rattled by the Angry Geek brigade, which has launched an online war to defend free speech.

Danu Poyner

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‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’

Winston Churchill’s rousing rhetoric during the Second World War was from another time and in response to a different threat, but the passion and perseverance it conveys may just as well capture the spirit of the fight against censorship of the internet in Australia.

There is bitter irony in the fact that those who fought in the Second World War sought to defend our freedoms against tyranny and oppression, yet today freedom is under threat once more – this time from our own government.

The Australian Labor government (supposedly centre-left) wants to introduce compulsory internet censorship for every Australian, in an attempt to clamp down on what it claims is a rampant child pornography problem. It also says the filter will block ‘unwanted’ content, but has so far refused to say what exactly that might be.

The government has yet to demonstrate that access to online child pornography is a serious problem. Even if it is a serious problem which needs to be addressed urgently with taxpayer funds, it’s certainly unclear why the government believes wasting public money on a forced filtering system, which won’t work and degrades network speeds, is a good solution. The minister responsible for the scheme, Senator Stephen Conroy, won’t say much about it beyond accusing anyone who questions the idea of ‘supporting child pornography’.

Those who have grown up in a digital world are having none of it. The internet is one of the most important human developments since the printing press, but it is still young and needs to be nurtured and protected.

One of the most disarming arguments in favour of censorship is we already do it with TV, movies, music, books and games and the internet is just another medium subject to the same rules. Except it isn’t. The internet isn’t about broadcasting, or even narrowcasting, it’s about conversation and connectedness. It isn’t a medium in itself. It’s the tubes other media are built on. For many, the free and truly democratic nature of the internet is an island of hope. Digital natives are proud and fiercely protective of their island and will defend it whatever the cost may be.

From the moment the geeks heard about the so-called ‘clean feed’, we went to arms. We fought it on blogs and on forums, on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. This was to be a war on our own turf, and we were ready. Angry geeks may not sound so scary, especially when pitted against a government armed with a large majority and a powerful decoy like ‘protecting the children’, but what they didn’t count on was the very strength of the force they were trying to muzzle. We were connected.

Of the many warriors who have helped fight this scheme, a few deserve special mention. Michael Meloni has tirelessly covered the issue since it first came up a year ago, filing in-depth reports on his blog, ‘Somebody Think of the Children’. Michael’s efforts have provided plenty of fodder for others to use in this fight. So have the efforts of Mark Newton, a network engineer at a leading Australian ISP who has been increasingly vocal on the issue since concrete details first started to appear a few months ago. Mark, speaking from a position of experience and authority on the subject, has written several letters to MPs, appeared on mainstream TV programmes such as Today and has been active in the online community in disseminating many of the technical aspects of the scheme. Colin Jacobs and Dale Clapperton of Electronic Frontiers Australia have also been active in engaging with media and keeping a well-maintained blog. Hundreds of others far too numerous to mention have also done their part in raising awareness, information gathering and providing analysis.

So is this movement of angry geeks having any effect? We’re not talking about the work of seasoned political operatives or experienced lobbyists here. It’s a collective, ad-hoc political action – Mark Pesce calls it ‘hyperpolitics’ – and all the evidence suggests it’s having quite a significant effect indeed.

The scheme is coming under increasing scrutiny from the mainstream media, who have heard all the fuss and sense a story. ISPs, who will be forced to implement the filtering if it goes ahead, are speaking out. Michael Malone, managing director of iiNet, says it is going along with the government’s ‘ridiculous’ live trial just to prove ‘how stupid it is’. Other ISPs, including Australia’s largest telco, Telstra, have refused to participate at all.

Professional activist group GetUp! has organised a petition and fundraiser which managed to collect over 75,000 signatures and $30,000 in only a few days. Protest rallies in all Australian capital cities have been organised online and are scheduled to take place this weekend (13 December). Even child protection groups have publicly attacked the proposal, describing it as ‘fundamentally flawed’.

Angry geeks practising hyperpolitics have much to be proud of, as it is often our work and research that is cited by others, and our passion surrounding the issue that has earned it such publicity in the first place.

The government needs votes in the Senate to make its censor-wall become law. The Greens, with their five Senate votes, have said they will vote against it, and the Opposition, sniffing the political wind, have said they will also vote against it in its current form. That leaves the government with nowhere to go except to change people’s minds or abandon the idea as a lost cause.

You could almost feel sorry for Senator Conroy, who probably has no idea what hit him. Except he’s still there, dodging even the most basic questions, continuing to accuse detractors of supporting child porn and looking increasingly desperate as even his own party starts to distance itself from him. Many people are of the opinion that the government will wait for its farcical ‘live’ trial to end and then use the results to back out while saving face. Some suspect Conroy is unlikely to last out the whole term as minister, after what is shaping up to be a total disaster in one of the government’s key portfolios.

Total disaster is exactly what the angry geeks are hoping for. We hope the issue of internet censorship becomes so toxic that no politician dares to go near it again.

But the war isn’t over yet. As Churchill said after the German ceasefire in 1945, ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad.’

The price of freedom, as they say, is eternal vigilance.

Danu Poyner is a professional geek, but usually not an angry one. He enjoys helping people discover the potential of technology to transform their lives. He blogs at www.danupoyner.com.

Tear down Australia’s Great Firewall Reef, by Guy Rundle

Liberal tyranny on the World Wide Web, by Kerry Miller

Read more at spiked issues Australia and Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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