Community without Flesh

First Thoughts on the New Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999

How to Cite

Chen, P. (1999). Community without Flesh: First Thoughts on the New Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999. M/C Journal, 2(3).
Vol. 2 No. 3 (1999): Flesh
Published 1999-05-01

On Wednesday 21 April the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts introduced a piece of legislation into the Australian Senate to regulate the way Australians use the Internet. This legislation is presented within Australia's existing system of content regulation, a scheme that the Minister describes is not censorship, but merely regulation (Alston 55). Underlying Senator Alston's rhetoric about the protection of children from snuff film makers, paedophiles, drug pushers and other criminals, this long anticipated bill is aimed at reducing the amount of pornographic materials available via computer networks, a censorship regime in an age when regulation and classification are the words we prefer to use when society draws the line under material we want to see, but dare not allow ourselves access to.

Regardless of any noble aspirations expressed by free-speech organisations such as Electronic Frontiers Australia relating to the defence of personal liberty and freedom of expression, this legislation is about porn. Under the Bill, Australia would proscribe our citizens from accessing:

  • explicit depictions of sexual acts between consenting adults;
  • mild non-violent fetishes;
  • depictions of sexual violence, coercion or non-consent of any kind;
  • depictions of child sexual abuse, bestiality, sexual acts accompanied by offensive fetishes, or exploitative incest fantasies;
  • unduly detailed and/or relished acts of extreme violence or cruelty;
  • explicit or unjustifiable depictions of sexual violence against non-consenting persons;
  • and detailed instruction or encouragement in matters of crime or violence or the abuse of proscribed drugs. (OFLC)

The Australian public, as a whole, favour the availability of sexually explicit materials in some form, with OFLC data indicating a relatively high degree of public support for X rated videos, the "high end" of the porn market (Paterson et al.). In Australia strict regulation of X rated materials in conventional media has resulted in a larger illegal market for these materials than the legalised sex industries of the ACT and Northern Territory (while 1.2 million X rated videos are legally sold out of the territories, 2 million are sold illegally in other jurisdictions, according to Patten).

In Australia, censorship of media content has traditionally been based on the principles of the protection of society from moral harm and individual degradation, with specific emphasis on the protection of innocents from material they are not old enough for, or mentally capable of dealing with (Joint Select Committee on Video Material). Even when governments distanced themselves from direct personal censorship (such as Don Chipp's approach to the censorship of films and books in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and shifted the rationale behind censorship from prohibition to classification, the publicly stated aims of these decisions have been the support of existing community standards, rather than the imposition of strict legalistic moral values upon an unwilling society.

In the debates surrounding censorship, and especially the level of censorship applied (rather than censorship as a whole), the question "what is the community we are talking about here?" has been a recurring theme. The standards that are applied to the regulation of media content, both online and off, are often the focus of community debate (a pluralistic community that obviously lacks "standards" by definition of the word). In essence the problem of maintaining a single set of moral and ethical values for the treatment of media content is a true political dilemma: a problem that lacks any form of solution acceptable to all participants.

Since the introduction of the Internet as a "mass" medium (or more appropriately, a "popular" one), government indecision about how best to treat this new technology has precluded any form or content regulation other than the ad hoc use of existing non-technologically specific law to deal with areas of criminal or legally sanctionable intent (such as the use of copyright law, or the powers under the Crimes Act relating to the improper use of telecommunications services). However, indecision in political life is often associated with political weakness, and in the face of pressure to act decisively (motivated again by "community concern"), the Federal government has decided to extend the role of the Australian Broadcasting Authority to regulate and impose a censorship regime on Australian access of morally harmful materials.

It is important to note the government's intention to censor access, rather than content of the Internet. While material hosted in Australia (ignoring, of course, the "cyberspace" definitions of non-territorial existence of information stored in networks) will be censored (removed from Australia computers), the government, lacking extraterritorial powers to compel the owners of machines located offshore, intends to introduce of some form of refused access list to materials located in other nations.

What is interesting to consider in this context is the way that slight shifts of definitional paradigm alter the way this legislation can be considered. If information flows (upon which late capitalism is becoming more dependent) were to be located within the context of international law governing the flow of waterways, does the decision to prevent travel of morally dubious material through Australia's informational waterways impinge upon the riparian rights of other nations (the doctrine of fair usage without impeding flow; Godana 50)?

Similarly, if we take Smith's extended definition of community within electronic transactional spaces (the maintenance of members' commitment to the group, monitoring and sanctioning behaviour and the production and distribution of resources), then the current Bill proposes the regulation of the activities of one community by another (granted, a larger community that incorporates the former). Seen in this context, this legislation is the direct intervention in an established social order by a larger and less homogeneous group.

It may be trite to quote the Prime Minister's view of community in this context, where he states

...It is free individuals, strong communities and the rule of law which are the best defence against the intrusive power of the state and against those who think they know what is best for everyone else. (Howard 21)

possibly because the paradigm in which this new legislation is situated does not classify those Australians online (who number up to 3 million) as a community in their own right. In a way the Internet users of Australia have never identified themselves as a community, nor been asked to act in a communitarian manner. While discussions about the value of community models when applied to the Internet are still divided, there are those who argue that their use of networked services can be seen in this light (Worthington). What this new legislation does, however, is preclude the establishment of public communities in order to meet the desires of government for some limits to be placed on Internet content.

The Bill does allow for the development of "restricted access systems" that would allow pluralistic communities to develop and engage in a limited amount of self-regulation. These systems include privately accessible Intranets, or sites that restrict access through passwords or some other form of age verification technique. Thus, ignoring the minimum standards that will be required for these communities to qualify for some measure of self-regulatory freedom, what is unspoken here is that specific subsections of the Internet population may exist, provided they keep well away from the public gaze. A ghetto without physical walls.

Under the Bill, a co-regulatory approach is endorsed by the government, favouring the establishment of industry codes of practice by ISPs and (or) the establishment of a single code of practice by the content hosting industry (content developers are relegated to yet undetermined complementary state legislation). However, this section of the Bill, in mandating a range of minimum requirements for these codes of practice, and denying plurality to the content providers, places an administrative imperative above any communitarian spirit. That is, that the Internet should have no more than one community, it should be an entity bound by a single guiding set of principles and be therefore easier to administer by Australian censors.

This administrative imperative re-encapsulates the dilemma faced by governments dealing with the Internet: that at heart, the broadcast and print press paradigms of existing censorship regimes face massive administrative problems when presented with a communications technology that allows for wholesale publication of materials by individuals. Whereas the limited numbers of broadcasters and publishers have allowed the development of Australia's system of classification of materials (on a sliding scale from G to RC classifications or the equivalent print press version), the new legislation introduced into the Senate uses the classification scheme simply as a censorship mechanism: Internet content is either "ok" or "not ok".

From a public administration perspective, this allows government to drastically reduce the amount of work required by regulators and eases the burden of compliance costs by ISPs, by directing clear and unambiguous statements about the acceptability of existing materials placed online. However, as we have seen in other areas of social policy (such as the rationalisation of Social Security services or Health), administrative expedience is often antipathetic to small communities that have special needs, or cultural sensitivities outside of mainstream society. While it is not appropriate to argue that public administration creates negative social impacts through expedience, what can be presented is that, where expedience is a core aim of legislation, poor administration may result.

For many Australian purveyors of pornography, my comments will be entirely unhelpful as they endeavour to find effective ways to spoof offshore hosts or bone up (no pun intended) on tunnelling techniques. Given the easy way in which material can be reconstituted and relocated on the Internet, it seems likely that some form of regulatory avoidance will occur by users determined not to have their content removed or blocked. For those regulators given the unenviable task of censoring Internet access it may be worthwhile quoting from Sexing the Cherry, in which Jeanette Winterson describes the town:

whose inhabitants are so cunning that to escape the insistence of creditors they knock down their houses in a single night and rebuild them elsewhere. So the number of buildings in the city is always constant but they are never in the same place from one day to the next. (43)

Thus, while Winterson saw this game as a "most fulfilling pastime", it is likely to present real administrative headaches to ABA regulators when attempting to enforce the Bill's anti-avoidance clauses.

The Australian government, in adapting existing regulatory paradigms to the Internet, has overlooked the informal communities who live, work and play within the virtual world of cyberspace. In attempting to meet a perceived social need for regulation with political and administrative expedience, it has ignored the potentially cohesive role of government in developing self-regulating communities who need little government intervention to produce socially beneficial outcomes. In proscribing activity externally to the realm in which these communities reside, what we may see is a new type of community, one whose desire for a feast of flesh leads them to evade the activities of regulators who operate in the "meat" world. What this may show us is that in a virtual environment, the regulators' net is no match for a world wide web.

Author Biography

Peter Chen