[R] is for Regulation: cleaning up the net universe

Linda Carroli

[CHAOS]
Since April last year a steady stream of emails with subject headings like ‘censorship’ and ‘refused classification’ have been coming in. On the art and culture list, Recode, there’s debate, resistance and running commentary among its subscriber base of artists, activists and academics about the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 which was passed in May and effective from January 1 2000. As it passed through parliament, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and Arts, Senator Richard Alston’s 1998 speech (Hansard, May 28) echoed loud and clear: “I do not think that anyone in this country wants to see an electronic Sodom and Gomorrah. It is unedifying and debasing and we will take action to…ensure that it does not occur” (www.dcita.gov.au – expired).

Among the responses to the legislation is a protest by Sydney-based ISP, Autonomous Organisation (autonomous.org-expired) which hosts a number of artist sites and artworks. Autonomous Organisation has ‘Refused Classification’ and in a statement published on Recode said, “most of the material published here by artists is relatively innocuous, however, we refuse to deny that existing material and future work…will ever be amongst material which could generally be considered R or X or even RC rated on television.”

As in the arts community, there is speculation in other communities. Opponents include the CSIRO, Electronic Frontier Australia, Civil Liberties Groups and Lawyers, Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the Eros Foundation, variously labelling the exercise as unwieldy, contradictory, moralistic, unworkable and an infringement of rights. Author of the ACLGR submission to the Select Senate Committee, Paul Canning (www.rainbow.net.au/~canning – expired) anticipates that the legislation will devastate the Australian lesbian and gay online community with filtering and classification provisions inhibiting access to gay and lesbian sites.

[FREEDOM]

In Electronic Frontier Australia’s Senate submission on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999, John Howard is quoted as saying that as an effect of his government, Australians feel more comfortable speaking their opinions and sentiments freely. Howard is referring to the tongue-biting scourge of ‘political correctness’ described in McKenzie Wark’s Virtual Republic (Allen and Unwin, 1997) as possibly “more fantasy than fact.” Using this power of exaggerated myth, quixotic conservatives asserted that the community was held to ideological ransom, censored by some imagined authority in the guise of multiculturalism, feminism and ATSIC. Sure, it’s a whole other story, but as EFA points out, such a statement indicates that ‘freedom of expression’ must be a value of the government. Nevertheless, as the bill was introduced into Parliament, it was described as ‘Draconian’ and more rigid than its Singaporean or Malaysian counterparts.

Chair of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Fund, John Rimmer also sits on the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Authority. He explained that during its passage through Parliament, the bill was vigorously debated: “You shouldn’t assume that the legislation is as ‘Draconian’ as it appeared when first introduced, as a number of amendments have been made.” Accordingly, the provisions of the Act will be clarified by the Internet Industry Association Code of Practice and as the first complaints are processed.

[CODE]

On December 16, the ABA registered 3 codes of practice outlining the obligations of ISPs and ICHs in relation to internet content. Developed by the Internet Industry Association (www.iia.net.au) for implementation with the Act from January 1, the codes are integral to the co-regulatory scheme established through the legislation. They will operate in conjunction with the ABA’s complaints investigation procedures.

The codes outline the rights and responsibilities of clients, ISPs and ICHs including: customer advice and content management; the requirement for parental permission for children’s internet accounts as well as parental supervision of child internet access; complaint procedures; informing producers of legal responsibilities for content; and making provision for the use of approved client and server side filters for overseas content.

According to Canning, filters indiscriminately restrict content and he cites the example of a Melbourne scientist working at St Vincent’s Hospital unable to access a HIV/AIDS website, receiving the message, “access denied: unsuitable content: full nudity, sexual acts/text, gross depictions/text.” This indicates the possibility that art sites with such depictions or texts could also be filtered. He anticipates increased self-censorship among artists as well as reduced accessibility to gay and lesbian artwork due to the imposition of film classifications which he claims are more severe than literature classifications. Rimmer says this is a matter of opinion. “The OFLC interpretations may not in fact be more stringent in the context of artworks. Scenario Urbano (Denis del Favero et al) have managed quite a lot in their video installations.”

On behalf of Adelaide-based arts ISP, Virtual Artists (va.com.au), artist Jesse Reynolds said that while he was wary of any internet regulation, the codes seemed useful for ISPs. “I think the codes are a positive step away from the complete nightmares of the new legislation. I certainly intend to steadfastly ignore the new legislation until such point as someone forces me to do something, then it will be kick up a stink time. Basically, I’ve got no truck with the legislation whatsoever. If we are forced to shut down servers for our clients, I’ll set up a VA mirror in the States and put the sites there instead.”

[INTENT]

According to John Rimmer, artistic context will be considered should complaints about online artwork be lodged with the ABA. “The classification process takes into account a range of matters and is required to look at literary or artistic merit as well as the intended audience. I personally find it hard to see that this sort of [artistic] activity is likely to be of great concern.”

[PROTECTION]

The Act seeks to restrict children’s access to explicit material by introducing a system for dealing with complaints from the public as well as for removing ‘offending’ content. Subsequently, material which is currently legal and available in other formats will be banned on the web. For Canning, the issue of protecting children is something of a furphy given that laws banning material such as child porn already exist. “I would say that it was a response to a media-induced moral panic about child safety online, a ‘beat-up’ in other words. But Senator Alston ran with that and made the law far harsher by, for example, using the film rather than literature classifications.”

In Bad Girls: the media, sex and feminism in the 90s (Allen and Unwin, 1997), Catharine Lumby argues that children’s interaction with virtual and real communities should be treated the same way. Rather than be excluded, children should receive warnings and be supervised: “adults have to work with children and help them negotiate unfamiliar information, situations and people.”

John Rimmer is particularly concerned about those aspects of the internet he describes as “in your face”, especially the ease with which users can unwittingly access pornography or email users can harass with or forward unsolicited material. Describing the intent of the legislation, he said it provides the community with an opportunity to complain about material they do not want available to children. “Its highest priority is sensible oversight of contexts in which material comes into contact with children. However, in itself, it does not replace the supervision of children while using the internet.”

[FEAR]

When Senator Alston said in an ABC interview that he aims to filter the web to create a “clean universe”, you have to wonder whether pornography is the target or the excuse, especially considering that the legislation was drafted to placate Brian Harradine, thus securing his Senate vote for the GST. There’s clearly a degree of fear and anxiety at play: anxiety about new technologies, fears for children and the risk of exposing them to adult sexuality, ‘moral panic’ about society as a whole. Catharine Lumby sees such fears as “unavoidably bound up with broader anxieties about the potential new media has to change people and traditional social and power structures and values.”

Describing a possible effect of this anxiety, Electronic Writing Research Ensemble Site Editor, Teri Hoskin, is concerned about the reliance that newcomers to digital technology will and do place on corporate entities, such as Ninemsn, to ‘guide’ them through the internet. “Playing on unfounded fears isn’t going to generate an environment of invention and experimentation. What we are increasingly seeing is the one-application-that-does-it-all syndrome, instead of an empowerment that relies on the agency of the user in forming networks and making accidental discoveries along the way. Perhaps (and with hope) this technophobia will die out as the kids of today gain more access to decision-making. They’ve grown up with a keyboard and screen.”

[ART]

The issue for the arts community is any possibility that this legislation will be applied to all internet content. Hoskin is tempering confidence with caution. “I really cannot see [a fuss] happening with art sites unless someone got a bee in their bonnet and wanted a scapegoat or wanted to test the scope of the law. Even though the legislation targets other types of content, I’m not convinced it’s in anyone’s best interests and I am wary of the potential for dangerous, unintended effects.”

The legislations seems to result in a community ‘dragnet’, with content, as distinct from entire websites, receiving Office of Film and Literature Classification ratings and regulation on a complaint basis. The prospect of restrictions on any explicit material including artworks, sexuality and health information looks real enough. Pursuant to the Act, R, RC or X rated content must be removed by order of the ABA. However, R rated content can remain if an Adult Verification Scheme (AVS) is in place. According to Canning, there are problems with the AVS which have resulted in reduced site visits. Search engines do not list sites using them and visitors are duly worried about privacy. Accessing art sites may not evoke the same privacy issues, but the obstacle of finding those sites remains.

While there are some generous considerations for artwork in the ABA’s deliberations, these are not absolute. The ABA determines the nature and context of the work, meaning that the demeanour of an artwork would be interpreted quite differently from pornography. According to John Rimmer, an internet porn site is obviously and inherently different in its character and intention from an artwork, even an artwork that appropriates porn.

Rimmer advised that the ABA applies administrative priorities in its processing of complaints. “The intention of the legislation is to obstruct access to pornographic material. Therefore, the ABA is more likely to address complaints about material of broader and more immediate concern, such as child pornography, than complaints about work produced for a consciously artistic context.”

[HACKED]

The ABA’s website was hacked on December 9, 1999. The following message appeared on its home page: “YOU CANT FUCKING CENSOR ME… if a message wants to get out..it will..leave it up to the au gov to make sure we stay in te dark ages… people only now can get connectivity USA has enjoyed for years…and now one of te greatest resources we gave for free speech and afree learning will be stifled by a vocal minority with no understanding of the underlying technology stand up now..and fight for your rights..if you want to be able to decide for YOURSELF what you can and cant read… i say once again…..LOUD and clear.. the internet is NOT a babysitter.. wou wouldnt let them roam the streets… dont let them roam the world… dont let your bad parenting spoil it for others… go buy a fucking clue.. ——— greetz and respect to the usuals.kat.etc.analognet. and barry heh…and a big FUCK YOU CNUTSUCKING SMEGWHORES to au gov.. clueless fucks… i digress.. adios… Ned R ——- p.s. admin.. dont bother..you wont trace me… and im not coming back here.. my point is made..if i get time one day ill secure it for you…luv and kisses.. Ned R—-pp.s My spelling sucked real bad cos i was high on methyldioxymethamphetamines and crack…”

RealTime issue #35 Feb-March 2000 pg. 20

© Linda Carroli; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2000
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