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Bit depth

The first in a series of new media columns by Jonathon Delacour

Jonathon Delacour is a photographer turned interactive storyteller currently working on online projects including an AFC-funded hypertext narrative work for the world wide web and (with Michael Hill) an avatar-based game for a 3D chat space.

"What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head."
Yoshida Kenko c1330

While no-one can claim immunity from nonsensical thoughts—some can be charming and witty, like those of the Buddhist monk Kenko—others are merely stupid. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of wilful stupidity than our government’s recent announcement of “principles for a national approach to regulate the content of online services such as the internet”.

A joint press release from the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston, and Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, proposes a “framework [that] balances the need to address community concerns in relation to content with the need to ensure that regulation does not inhibit industry growth and potential”. This ludicrous proposal, which can only have been dreamed up by people who have never had any contact with the internet, envisages that the online service provider (ISP) industry will “develop codes of practice in relation to online content, in consultation with the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA)”.

As a result, anyone unhappy about online content must first complain to the relevant ISP; the ABA then has the authority to investigate unresolved complaints. Conceptually, it is similar to the way in which film, television, radio broadcasts and computer games are currently regulated. A distressed viewer might call a television station to complain about nudity or language in a movie. If they do not receive a satisfactory response (whatever that might mean) from the television station, they can then complain to the ABA which conducts an “inquiry” and, if it finds the material was inappropriate, tells the broadcaster not to do it again. Prosecutions are exceedingly rare.

The system works tolerably well because there is tangible evidence of any “offending material” in the form of reels of film or videotape, audiotapes of radio broadcasts, and floppy disk or CD-ROM games and, because potentially objectionable content has already been filtered out by the censorship system. In the case of the internet, this process can already be effectively mimicked by filtering and parental control software such as CYBERsitter, SurfWatch, Net Nanny, Rated-PG, X-Stop, Cyber Snoop, and Cyber Patrol—just a few of the alternatives which render internet regulation unnecessary, as long as parents are prepared to accept responsibility for limiting their children’s access to the net.

But let’s assume, adopting the position of the fundamentalist Right, that these software safeguards are only partly effective and that “harmful” material slips through. Only a tiny fraction of internet content is stored on local (ie Australian) servers. What can the ABA do about a complaint concerning “offensive” content on a web server in the US, or Italy, or Japan? What kind of response is the offended web surfer likely to get from a foreign content producer or ISP? Incredulity? Derision?

And so much of the content is ephemeral anyway: chat sessions exist only in real time, web sites appear and disappear, e-mail and Usenet news is stored only temporarily on an ISP’s server. Internet content resembles, as much as anything, telephone conversations and facsimile transmissions. In a sense this is the core of the problem: the “regulatory framework” attempts to impose a broadcast metaphor on what are essentially telecommunications carriers. They may as well attempt to control the air Australians breathe or the water we drink.

The whole idea of regulation is so divorced from reality that it is difficult to explain why it is being proposed. Put to one side the government’s duplicity in not admitting that regulation is largely unnecessary; perhaps the legislation is a cynical attempt to appease Senator Brian Harradine, the Lyons Group and other conservative elements in the Liberal party, put forward in the knowledge that it is unworkable and will inevitably fail.

Alternatively, could it be that Australian politicians are profoundly unaware of digital culture and the way it is reshaping our world? That this lack of understanding is not restricted to federal politicians becomes depressingly obvious when you observe in NSW the Carr government’s tubthumping about internet pornography while they shovel computers into state schools and hook them up to the net without making any real provision for teacher training.

Ultimately, it is not this whacky censorship sideshow that is truly dispiriting. It is that at a time when we need to formulate an imaginative and courageous response to the radical social and economic transformation about to be wrought by the internet, our politicians are jockeying for position like amateurs at a provincial racetrack. Which horse do you bet on when the only starters are confusion, dishonesty, cynicism, stupidity and ignorance?

Jonathon Delacour is a photographer turned interactive storyteller currently working on online projects including an AFC-funded hypertext narrative work for the world wide web and (with Michael Hill) an avatar-based game for a 3D chat space.

RealTime issue #20 Aug-Sept 1997 pg. 22

© Jonathon Delacour; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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