Editorial from The West Australian

PERTH MONDAY JUNE 17 1996

Copyright: © West Australian Newspapers

Censors not needed in cyberspace

THREE judges in Philadelphia have struck an international blow for the right of free speech by blocking a US law aimed in effect to censor the Internet.

Although their finding was based on American constitutional law, it contains definitive statements about the nature of free speech and the Internet which have direct applications in all nations where people have access to the burgeoning medium.

By blocking the Communications Decency Act, the judges asserted the primacy of free speech in a democracy.

In a statement that will reverberate through debates about the Internet and free speech for years to come, the judges said: "Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech that the First Amendment protects."

The judges' finding goes to the essence of the Internet -- the anarchy of ideas in the world's biggest free market of thought and images.

The politician's instinct to suppress freedom of the exchange of ideas and to interpose the power of government between those who seek to communicate without impediment seems to be universal. A measure of the strength of a democracy is the extent to which such government intrusion is resisted.

People should distrust any proposal under which politicians seek to give themselves more power of censorship over what information should be publicly available -- particularly if it comes coated in the alluring guise of protecting the innocent.

The ostensible aim of the legislation the Philadelphia judges blocked was to protect minors from what it described as indecent or patently offensive material on the Internet by providing for heavy fines or jail sentences for people who breached it.

The aim is shared by governments around the world and by those people in the US and elsewhere who opposed the legislation on civil libertarian grounds.

The conflict is over the means to be used to achieve this. The US Government's choice of legislation was clearly an attempt at unwarranted intrusion of official censorship into the world's main forum of free expression.

It went ahead with its misbegotten plan despite the increasing availability of software that gives parents the technological capacity to control what their children can see on the Internet. This technology places the exercise of authority over what children see where it belongs -- with parents.

Australian governments, which have been considering ways in which to stop children from being exposed to unsuitable material on the Internet, should direct their efforts at helping parents to carry out these responsibilities in their homes.

Although Australia does not have a written constitutional guarantee of free speech of the type that applies in the US, our parliaments should heed the message inherent in the US experience censorship is not an acceptable solution in a democracy to the problem of pornography on the Internet.

The value of the Internet is its freedom from official interference. To impose censorship because a small part of its content might be pornographic would destroy its essence like razing a bookshop in case it contains an indecent book.

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