Deconstructing morality and Labor’s internet filter


This article is by Colin Jacobs, the chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia. It first appeared on the EFA’s site and is licensed under Creative Commons.

opinion Much has been written and said about the Labor Government’s plan to censor Australia’s Internet. The plan, which involves a Government blacklist of web sites that all Australian internet service providers would be required to block, has been criticised for its ineffectiveness, free speech risks and technical difficulties. However, while there has been some moralising, there has been little serious debate about the filter’s moral implications.

The Prime Minister injected morality into the discussion on Tuesday when answering a skeptical question about the filter, saying that the Internet may present technical challenges to censorship, “but the underpinning moral question, I think, is exactly the same”. If it’s not allowed in a cinema, she argued, the change in medium does not change the underpinning moral issue.

But what, then, exactly is the moral question?

Is the Prime Minister arguing that our morals need to be protected? The preservation of public morality has always been a justification for censorship. This is as true now as it was in the 19th century when information on contraception was banned in Australia, just as it is used now to deny information on sexuality or alternative religions in Saudi Arabia. Many view it as self-evident that such protection is necessary.

These days, though, we ought to be a little more skeptical about claims that we need protection from moral pollution. Whether exposure to controversial content can adversely affect the morals of the viewer is a question that is open to scientific analysis. Is viewing material considered abhorrent by the community alone sufficient to turn a moral person into an immoral one? Does pornography have a corrosive effect on the attitudes of those who view it?

This is a fertile avenue for research, but what we know so far is far from unambiguous. While violent people may seek out violent material, cause and effect is not clear. Research shows that the use of pornography may actually have a positive impact on its users and their attitudes to sexuality.

This is an area of legitimate debate, but before we introduce drastic new public policy, we ought to be clear just who we are protecting, how and why. We may decide that the government has a role to play in shielding adults from “harmful” influences. Then again, we may decide that individual freedom trumps such concerns.

Where the rights of other people are being violated the moral dimension of the problem becomes much clearer. The production and dissemination of child pornography clearly violates the rights of the children involved and is unambiguously immoral by any sane definition. Is the morality of child abuse germane to the discussion of censorship? I would argue that it is not, at least in the case of the Internet filter.

Consuming this sort of material is unanimously abhorred and is a serious criminal offence everywhere in Australia. No matter in what format a person views child pornography, they are committing a crime. Since criminal sanctions are already in place, and experts agree the filter will be totally ineffective in slowing the traffic of this material, it’s not clear how the existence of child pornography makes Internet censorship a moral imperative.

One could argue — and some do — that we as a society should take any measures that could potentially prevent the spread of such immorality no matter what the costs. Others, including myself, argue that even here we must weigh the benefits against the costs to society of stricter censorship and greater intrusion into our personal lives. Certainly, effective measures to combat child pornography should be taken, and these include enforcement and infiltration by police agencies. The ethics of an ineffective filter are however highly debatable.

As it happens, even the Prime Minister’s movie theatre analogy does not hold up, as it is would not be illegal to go and view a movie that was Refused Classification in a cinema, though the cinema’s owner would certainly be in breach of the law. The actual material that would be blocked under the current classification scheme is also much broader than clearly “immoral” content such as violent porn, and would include content banned for discussion of crime, sexual fetishes, or even adult-oriented computer games.

This is not mere nit-picking, as it demonstrates that Internet filtering represents a major shift in censorship policy from laws that affect corporations distributing entertainment commercially to those that affect ordinary citizens who consume and create content online.

Should the government have this level of control over the content we view? I would argue that this, too, is a moral issue, as it could have a very significant impact on a human right we take very seriously.

Image Credit: Marco Belluci, Creative Commons


  1. The article says “No matter in what format a person views child pornography, they are committing a crime.” But doesn’t the definition of what is considered child pornography differ between formats/delivery methods?

  2. That’s a good point. The work of Bill Henson certainly proved this to be a bit of a grey area. However I think to anyone with common sense, it’s pretty easy to determine what is child porn (the equivalent of child abuse no matter how it’s presented) and tasteful art with a consenting child and family.

    My, and many other people’s concern, is will the government have the common sense to make this kind of distinction? Already there’s so many stupid decisions made within our archaic ratings system, that any number of acceptable websites could end up being “RC”.

    Please just hurry up and die already, Internet filter. Why Labor is persisting with this nonsense, when it’s clear the vast majority of Australians and tech industry experts are against it, is anyone’s guess. There must be some powerful people from the ACL in Conroy’s bed.

  3. Unfortunately common sense is not an absolute and it’s certainly not something that can be defined in legislation.

  4. This article sums up the point I made in a comment on the previuous post about this. The ‘moral’ question Gillard asks is not really the actual moral question, in that it’s accepted that child pornography is immoral. No one’s arguing about that, but she and Labor are trying to position the debate as if that’s the issue…

    The moral question is about censorship and precedent setting. The pragmatic question is about efficacy and achieving a useful outcome at an acceptable cost. On these criteria I’d say the filter is immoral. It will have a negligible effect on the spread and accessibility of such RC content, and has the potential for us to pay too great a price.

  5. I don’t really understand why it’s considered so clear and obvious that child pornography is immorral. Of course the act of child abuse is immoral, but then so is rape, murder and theft, yet nobody is suggesting we make images of those a crime. Child pornography seems to come up more often than not as the thin edge of the censorship wedge, as something that’s considered beyond debate, and therefore makes a stable platform to push the argument forward to pornography in general, or whatever else is being argued as worthy of censorship.

    • Hmm. I would think it would be fairly obvious, to be honest, why people consider this kind of content to be immoral. And I want to note that I don’t want to go further into exploring this line of discussion on Delimiter — I will be monitoring this thread carefully.

  6. Really? You’re not sure?

    Immoral acts aren’t black and white. How bad or good something is can be judged by many criteria. Hence there are various IRL crimes that are generally held to be worse than others. E.g. Theft = bad. Murder = very bad.

    As a consequence some images, even if faked, are considered worse. The line is different for different people, sure, but it’s well established that children can’t give consent for participating in sexual activity, whether real or fake. Therefore it’s not possible to ‘fake’ child pornography. It is child abuse, by definition. And child abuse of this kind is about as bad a thing as can be done to a person.

    Pornography that involves adults who are capable of giving consent is completely different to child abuse.

    My rule of thumb – the government should only interfere with individual freedoms when they can make the case that the interference, overall, is clearly for the greater public good. Making child porn RC, passes this criteria (‘normal’ porn would not). Using a mandatory filter as one of the methods to achieve this objective would not pass this criteria. It’ll be virtually ineffective and provide a mechanism that too easily could allow government to interfere with personal freedoms.

  7. The EFA says:
    “experts agree the filter will be totally ineffective in slowing the traffic of this material”

    but Interpol (international policing experts) support ISP blocking, saying the blocking “initiative is a key tool of preventive policing against the online exploitation of child sexual abuse victims and will complement existing policing on the Internet,”

    Just wondering whether EFA is funded by corporates like ISPs? Can’t seem to find anything on the web – EFA seems quite secretive in their wheelings and dealings….

  8. How about instead of a category called “refused classification”, we create a new category, say “child porn” and we block that. Then we’ll have a group from the police force that will maintain this list of so that it will contain nothing but what that category describes, this is a criminal matter after all. Problem solved.

  9. There’s plenty of information on EFA’s origins, structure and funding. Did you actually look?

    Also, police forces aren’t necessarily the first defenders of human rights internationally. I’d like to see any hard data that “blocking” has actually helped prevent child abuse online. Did they provide any?

    The Australian Internet censorship filter violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.

    Now that’s immoral.

  10. The bottom line in regards to this is completely missed by the supporters of the filter. Such people do exist, but in my opinion they have missed the real issue.

    Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – participating in this debate seriously considers that child pornography is a “good thing”. Undoubtedly, it is a bad thing. The problem however is that it is PRODUCED, not that it is DISTRIBUTED.

    Distribution is a by-product of production. A company that sets itself up as an alcohol DISTRIBUTION company is going to go out of business pretty quickly if no alcoholic drinks are PRODUCED, no?

    The problem really is the PRODUCTION of this disgusting stuff – not the DISTRIBUTION. The internet filter won’t even stop the distribution, let alone the production of it.

    If you could wave a magic wand over the world, and every last piece of child pornography vanished, and then a few months later some was found online, it means some defenseless child was traumatised in it’s production.

    The filter did nothing for this.

    If you block access online, you actually end up generating LESS data on who is accessing it, and where they are accessing it from, so you have LESS chance of locating the original creators of the stuff.

    It is not that the filter is “wrong” per-se, it is just that it doesn’t actually FIX anything, and it provides a mechanism for other kinds of filtering in the future.

  11. Clytie: I had a look on EFA’s site. They don’t list their corporate sponsors but they do say they don’t take money from porn companies. I’ve heard they’ve had some hefty donations from ISPs. I guess they do lobbying in the same way the companies that make filter hardware do.

    Your contention about the UDHR is tenuous to say the least. One could make an argument of equal merit that ISPs that fail to take reasonable steps to prevent the proliferation of child sexual abuse material have breached Article 1.

    So you’re not a lawyer, let alone an expert in international law – so what expertise do you bring to the discussion?

    I’ve alluded to Interpol’s perspective. I’d say they have significant expertise on the issue.

    We often hear from network engineers and regulatory affairs people from ISPs on this issue; but you’d have to be very naive to think they’d put forward any views that prioritised social responsibility above corporate profits.

    Michael – ditto, what expertise do you bring to the issue over and above that of Interpol? Are production and distribution not linked? Does limiting supply not limit demand? Is there merit in preventing the normalisation of this material by taking steps to mitigate its availability? Why have other, more progressive, countries taken the lead on this issue by years by implementing blocking of this material? Do their ISP industries have a greater sense of social responsibility? Or is it the case that the rest of the world is wrong and a few ISPs in Australia are right?

    • Where exactly do I claim to have expertise over and above Interpol? Where did I even MENTION Interpol? This is an interpolation that you have placed upon my comments.

      There is ample evidence that the material the introduction of the filter is deemed necessary to block is not actually carried/delivered by the technologies it will actually be able to block. Even Conroy himself has admitted that one of the results of having the filter would be the lower availability of data in regards to who is producing and hosting this kind of material, because it will force its distribution even further underground than it is currently.

      I would rather such information be readily available to law enforcement bodies such as Interpol and the FBI, so we can have these servers SHUTDOWN, the owners prosecuted, and the producers located and prosecuted also, rather than have to “trust” government(s) who are being dishonest about its implementation to only block what they say they are blocking.

      Conroy’s filter is a very Australia-centric response to an international problem.

      Organisations that are championing the filter – such as the ACL – have been filtering discussion of the entire debate on their own website, and Conroy is being disingenuous about many details of the plan, and refuses to listen to rational debate from people with far more technical and social understanding than himself.

      What exactly have they got to hide?

  12. The time to protest against these apparent freedom of speech and human rights violations was at the ballot box.
    If you voted for Labor so that you could get the NBN, I have eight words for you – Quit yammering and learn to love the filter. You traded the values that you now claim are under threat for some fibre optic cable.

    • If you voted Liberal solely on the basis of an Internet filter (which was effectively killed off before the election), then you didn’t do your homework.

      The Greens and Coalition have stated clearly that they will not support the filter, so it’s chances of actually being implemented are extremely slim.

      Therefore voting for Labor in favour of the NBN (rather than the coalition’s pathetic alternative) was a completely sensible and well informed decision.

  13. I am bemused by the fact that whenever the filter is mentioned, the “moral” argument is always about child pornography – which the PM is NOT reported to have mentioned. There are several points to be made about this:-

    1. German tests have shown that in most cases URLs on filter block lists described as child pornography are removed within 24hrs by a phone call or email to the hosting company. Surely this is better than filtering them, bearing in mind that the filter is readily bypassed? (

    2. Recent assessment of Scandinavian block lists which legally can only contain child pornography showed that only a tiny proportion of these actually did ( Does anyone really believe the secret Australian list would be any better?

    3. Most of the moral arguments against child pornography fail in the face of the fact that the legal definition of a child is under 18 for child pornography, but the age of consent is 16 or even younger in some states and some circumstances. This moral argument is further diluted by the unique Australian definition to include both fictional depictions and those that are in fact over 18 but “look” younger. These definitions construct the moral issue where an act can be perfectly legal, but possession of a picture of it or even a description (such as a private diary) is a major crime. In the case of other crimes, such as murder, this is called evidence! In this case it is the evidence that is the crime, not the act!

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