Yesterday I published an article called Clive Hamilton & I: Getting Personal about Sex, Lies, Hate & Censorship

My main purpose was to rebut what I call the ‘Clive Hamilton Fallacy’, named in honour of its most prominent exponent. This is the argument “we already censor TV, radio, movies, books, magazines and newspapers. Why should the Internet be exempt?”

My article delved into related topics. I suggested why defending children against porn may be a smokescreen for eventual, much more alarming, political censorship. The end result was a long article.

In this shorter version, I’ll focus only on the ‘Clive Hamilton Fallacy’.

Why do I call it a fallacy? After all, it sounds reasonable on the surface… “We already censor TV, radio, movies… why not the Internet?”

It’s odd that the word ‘Internet’ (as opposed to World Wide Web) is usually the concluding word in this seemingly plausible appeal. After all, the Internet and the Web are not the same thing. The actual proposal that Dr Hamilton and Senator Conroy are promoting is a proposal to censor the Web – not the Internet in entirety (not yet, at any rate…). Even if censorship proponents get muddled. we need to be clear about key distinctions like this.

The World Wide Web, while not easy to define in a few words, is a suite of user-friendly interface technologies that provide easy access to the Internet (some of them may be used without an Internet connection). Along with email, the Web has been a phenomenally successful interface/technology. The invention of the Web led to an explosion of Internet use from the early 1990s onwards. ‘The Internet’, a term that refers to the worldwide interconnected matrix of communicating computers, predates the Web.

Opponents of the proposed mandatory web ‘filter’ often point out that Web filtering is not feasible. The filter is bound to be ‘leaky’. We may also assert that the Web filtering proposal is only partial and futile for that reason also. What about proxy servers? VPNs?  I’ve used that argument myself, but I think it’s risky – because it could embolden would-be censors to extend prohibition to other Internet technologies too.

But why not censor the Web? After all, we already censor TV, radio, films…

Here’s why.

It comes down to the difference between (public) broadcast media and (essentially private) narrowcast media. They are very, very different. The same rules should not apply to both.

Whereas TV, movies, books, magazines etc are mainstream public media, the Web is a medium that enables a different kind of communication. It’s typically not a case of a few ‘one-to-many’ communications. It’s a case of many ‘one-to-one’ communications. That’s more akin to the mail than TV.

Whereas public broadcast media deliver shared experience to vast numbers of people, day after day, the Web does not.

True, some specific websites are very popular. But in total there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of websites. Each user decides which websites to access. Given the vast choice, each individual has essentially a private experience when surfing the Web.

If I turn on my TV, I know what I see will be viewed by many others. It’s the same if I flick on the radio or visit a movie. But if I visit an obscure website, I may well be the ONLY Australian on that day to do so. Or there may be thousands. It’s impossible to predict. When we use the Web, we make use of a narrowcast medium to go where we choose to go. There’s no telling where our neighbour goes. We both use the same basic technology, but our choices may well be worlds apart.

Proponents of the ‘Clive Hamilton Fallacy’ (principally Clive Hamilton himself) skip over the notion that there may be any problems associated with the current, rather tight censorship regime that pertains to mainstream media in Australia. I beg to differ. There ARE problems with this. Powerful political elites can and do use their power to restrict public access – within the ‘public’ media space – to information and analysis that doesn’t suit them. That’s to the detriment of the truth and contrary to the general public interest.

However, since the advent of the World Wide Web, those of us who dislike having our information sources rigorously ‘managed’ have had the alternative of using the Internet. The Web makes using the Internet easy. Now the ‘mandatory filtering’ proposal aims to take this crucial freedom away.

Whereas filtering works rather poorly for most photos and other graphical objects on the web, it works exceedingly well for searchable text. Rather too well, in fact. This has led critics to point out the problem of overkill. An example: any page with the word ‘Socialist’ could get inadvertently banned because it contains ‘Cialis’. That type of overkill is certainly a problem with robotic filters. Of course, in some circumstances (eg. on a home computer accessed by small children) the downside is worth it. But under the mandatory filtering proposal, individuals won’t get to choose. We won’t be able to turn the filter on and off at will. The choice would be made for us by a central censorship system.

Even though the proposed ‘filter’ will be ridiculously infective as an anti-pornography measure, it would work very effectively if the government ever chose to ban specific texts and impede public access to them.

Such bans could be automated, so any website repeating the offensive text could also be blocked – more or less immediately. Indeed, any site LINKING to a site containing the ‘offensive material’ could be easily blocked. In this way, bloggers and other websites could be intimidated into not reporting dissent (or even hyper-linking to other reports) – lest they be added to the banned list.

I repeat, censoring’ the Web is not like censoring the mainstream media. It’s much more like censoring the mail service. The Government’s plans for ISP-level filtering, whether innocent in intent or not, are pre-adapted for eventual political censorship.

In a recent TV interview, Clive Hamilton scoffed at claims that censoring for porn may be the thin end of the wedge. He said that’s just a ‘red herring’.

It will take more than a one-liner to convince your critics on that crucial point, Clive.

Large numbers of the most aware Australians treasure the freedom we now have to explore an uncensored Internet. It helps keep us sane in a world gone crazy. It helps us correct for mass media bias.

Above all, it helps us to make up our own minds. What’s so scary about that?