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Although the internet was designed to be a decentralized communications network with the ability to route around any blockage to ensure its information flows freely, ironically its success means governments are now planning to regulate it. Whether this filtering is presented as safeguarding children from violent or pornographic content, protecting adults from the excesses of online gambling, or attempting to stem copyright infringement, attempts at censorship are both ineffective and threaten civil liberties. As an artist, writer or producer working directly on the net, writing a blog, mashing text, graphics, audio, video or animation from pre-existing sources, creating derivative works, publishing an e-book, publicizing your creative practice, or even organizing collaborative events—you will be affected.

Practices such as remediating artworks, creating fake websites, challenging copyright, generating alternate Wiki entries, interventions or tactical media are becoming things of the past. South Australia just attempted to enact legislation that required anyone posting a political comment online during an election period to supply their real name and address or be fined up to AUS$1,250. Independent artists, bloggers or tweeters can no longer post anonymously or work under pseudonyms—so start saving up Yes Men and Boat People! Double standards are now, well, standard. Take the China vs Google example of censoring domestic search results and site blocking. While the world applauded Hilary Clinton slamming China, Iran and Saudi Arabia for lacking free speech and imposing “electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks," Western governments are intent on enforcing similar regulations. These fundamental threats to creative practice on the Internet are:

1: mandatory internet filtering
The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy will introduce legislation in March for a two-tiered system to filter all internet content in Australia at an Internet Service Provider (ISP) level. The first tier will be mandatory for all Australian internet users and will block “prohibited" material, with a second, optional tier directed at families. Implementation of this system is widely opposed as IT experts agree it will not block all banned sites; it will inadvertently block other sites; will slow down internet speeds; and the additional costs will be passed on to users!
There are no comparable ISP-level filtering (aka clean-feed) systems operating in any other western democracy. Germany has filtering requirements on search engines rather than ISPs; Italy requires all ISPs to block access to child pornography websites within six hours of being notified of them; some New Zealand ISPs voluntarily filter content to market themselves as family-friendly; and all US regulatory attempts have so far have been contested on the grounds of free speech.

The critical issue for our sector is that the list of “prohibited" content to be blocked will be secret—compiled "through a public complaints mechanism” and by the government itself. Given our Prime Minister's response on the Henson affair, I could conclude that content which opposed 'moral majority' attitudes to sexual practice and preference, or provided alternative or currently illegal views on social justice, immigration, or euthanasia—themes artists often investigate—could be added to the “list."

2: anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA)
ACTA has been under negotiation for the past two years between the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia and others. It is a trade agreement specifically designed to enforce copyright and stop peer-to-peer sharing throughout signatory countries, with the next round of ACTA negotiations being held in Wellington, New Zealand in April this year. Future scenarios, if ACTA goes ahead, look bleak. Content sharing sites like YouTube, which currently streams over one billion videos per day, could not exist. On a more personal level any allegations of file sharing from a home user's account would allow an ISP to remove your net access and place you on a user black list. Visual and sound artists using or sharing copyrighted material, which is common in online practice, are ripe for prosecution.

3: net neutrality
This founding and governing principle of the internet safeguards the circulation of information, ensuring everyone has the same rights and freedom to access and produce information online regardless of their financial or social status. Without Net Neutrality, the internet will look more like packaged pay TV.
So who would want to change that? Large US telephone and cable companies including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying US Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to revoke the net neutrality principle. They would like to create a regulated internet with the fat pipelines for their own search engines, internet phone services and streaming video, and for clients who can pay premium rates—and slow down or block services offered by their competitors. And of course if this is adopted in the US it will soon follow in Australia.
Hypothetically this means that corporate web sites like Telstra, News Corp or the Moran Arts Foundation would have fat bandwidth and superfast downloads, while lone bloggers, not-for-profits, political groups or individual artists would be blocked or arrive at deathly slow dialup speeds to anyone searching keywords. Or alternately the government could use its power, as has just transpired in Iran where Gmail has been banned, to block access to social networking sites. Welcome to the 21st century information wars fought on access and speed, with the very real possibility of the net disappearing as a viable arena for arts practice and promotion. Global legislative processes are underway and anti-legislation actions are appearing on and offline—the next local manifestation being the nationwide Block the Filter protests on March 6. Now is a critical time for our sector to respond to this proposed regulation. To quote Barak Obama—“let's stay firmly committed to net neutrality—to keeping the internet open and free.”

This article first appeared online March 1

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 20

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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