Australia got a new Prime Minister - and why you should care

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own party this week; he increasingly lost support because of backflips on election promises, badly implemented policies and the suggestion to introduce a super tax on mining profits. The polls began to worsen and the power hungry, poll-driven Senior fraction of the Labor Party decided to waste him. His successor is Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister.

"Why should I care?", you might wonder.

Under Rudd Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, tried to introduce his much criticized internet filter, an issue I covered on this blog before. I won't repeat what's wrong with it but just would like to point to this video as an example of Conroy's competence.

Conroy also called Google's Street view snafu "the single biggest breach of privacy in history"; however, this did not stop his department to craft an Orwellian scheme that may require Australian ISPs to log and retain details of all people's online communications and Web browsing activity.

At the same time no one really knows what's going on because the government imposed secrecy provisions on all the parties with which it is negotiating in this matter.

"[T]he process remains completely opaque and we are being asked to agree to the imposition of a generalised surveillance regime with nothing but the vaguest reassurances about its scope, intent and the potential hazards of abuse, misuse, maladministration and outright oppression. (Well, actually, we're not being asked at all. It's just happening."

It gets even scarier given the government's intention to link the information gathered from monitoring internet activities to identifiers such as pass port numbers.

This opens up...

...the real possibility of mashing together all of the personal information available in your data matching matrix to (your income, your tax history, you bank account details, your medical records for starters) to your online life - your tweets, your Facebook account, your email, your Chatroulette history, your 4square tracking data, your blog entries, the link you clicked not realising it was taking you to a snuff porn site, the link you clicked knowing it was taking you to a celebrity porn site, the comments you leave here today, all of it.

However, now that Rudd is gone there is a chance that things might change. 

Under Gillard the Labor Party is likely to look to move on from all the unpopular policies that have been driving down its popularity; accordingly, rumours are rife that Conroy will be replaced by Senator Kate Lundy.

As Thenextweb points out this is something also Internet users outside of Australia should appreciate:

You should care because of the precedent it creates, and the global flow on effect such a precedent would create.

After all, similar schemes were considered in other countries, one of the being my native Germany.

However, the question remains in how far Lundy is really able to achieve a change in policies and in how far the Labor Party is willing to distance itself from previous policies.

Explains Thenextweb

While the opportunity to replace Conroy may be too good to pass up, the reality for the electorate is that no woman is an island, particularly in Government, and without support for a radical departure from the existing strategy, Lundy will be as effective as the man who preceded her.

At the same time she does seem more competent than Conroy and has history of engaging with new technology and its role in Government. So there's hope of Australia getting over its traditional conservative censorship hangover – something we should all be grateful for.


Australia's contrary Internet tendencies

Australia is a weird country. Given that the country's broadband is amongst the worst in the developed world, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a plan to build a national broadband network. The ambitious project will take up to eight years, cost $43 billion, create tens of thousands of jobs and will see fibre-optic cable laid out to individual houses.

The fibre-optic network, providing speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, will cover 90 percent of Australians, while the rest will have access to a mix of wireless and satellite connections.

And yet Rudd lost thousands of Twitter followers in the last weeks. What happened?

In a move that somehow contradicts everything the national broadband plan stands for, the federal government decided to push ahead with its internet censorship plan.

Under this scheme a mandatory filter will block sites found on the secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist and blacklists held by other countries. Moreover, a wide scope of content could be prohibited under the proposed filtering regime. As the Australian Google blog explains:

Refused Classification (or RC) is a broad category of content that includes not just child sexual abuse material but also socially and politically controversial material—for example, educational content on safer drug use—as well as the grey realms of material instructing in any crime, including politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia.

As I've pointed out before, the scheme is expensive, ineffective and easy-to-circumvent. It potentially slows down an already slow internet and cripples Australia's competitiveness in the global marketplace. The scope of the planned scheme also sets a precedent for a Western democracy by uniquely combining a mandatory framework and a much wider scope of content.

Similar to the controversy surrounding the introduction of an R-18 rating for digital games, this move seems to be a case of a vocal minority of social conservatives trying to impose their worldview on the rest of society.

One of the first groups to be backgrounded on the results of the filter trial was the Australian Christian Lobby, and not the entire Australian public. It seems the government is concerned about defying those who act as (self-appointed) guardians of community standards.

On the other hand, the censorship scheme does not enjoy the overwhelming support of the Australian public. A poll that was commissioned by GetUP! found only four percent of Australians want the government to be responsible for protecting children online. 

The move alienates potential Labor voters, while the people who care about these issues are unlikely to vote for the party in the first place. It would also be interesting to see what would happen if the Liberals, now under leadership of conservative Tony Abbott, were to win the next election.

It seems that if fast broadband is introduced into Australia, its citizens will only be allowed to use it on the government's terms. If something violates the moral standards of the country's leaders it must be hidden or ruled out. Rudd already demonstrated this tendency towards social engineering in the discussions about the controversial pictures of Bill Henson.

Australia, it seems, still suffers from a conservative hangover that already led to unparalleled censorship campaigns in the Western World—90 years ago. 

However, times and media have changed. These days the concern is not what will and will not be blocked, but who will and will not be able to get around it.

As tech writer Kathryn Small puts it:

"Conroy will not be censoring the internet. He'll be censoring people who do not know much about the internet." [A]nyone with a vested interest who knows enough about software design will be able to circumvent the system. "The real problem is Conroy will create a two-tiered system [with] a massive disparity between the 'haves' and 'have nots' of computer literacy."


Left 4 Dead in the Aussie Censorship System

It looks like Left 4 Dead 2 has been banned in Australia. The reason: [C]lose in attacks cause copious amounts of blood spray and splatter, decapitations and limb dismemberment as well as locational damage where contact is made to the enemy which may reveal skeletal bits and gore.

This was not deemed suitable for 15-year-olds.

Despite the average Australian gamer being 30, the country is the only Western democracy not to embrace an adult rating for video games.

This is the result of a 1996 piece of legislation that followed a moral panic over the Sega CD game Night Trap. It was basically grounded in the belief that only kids and teens play games. (For more info see this thesis [PDF] and this excellent article.)

In 2009, Aussie gamers still have to endure the result of this obsolete thinking (which was never accurate in the first place).

The sole person responsible for maintaining Australia's status as one of the few Western countries without an adult rating is West Australia's attorney general, Michael Atkinson. He has plenty of reasons, none of them overly convincing—at least not to the vast majority of the Australian population.

Several games have been banned before or—in the case of Fallout 3—had to be reworked to suit the criteria. But Left 4 Dead 2 is the first high profile title to endure this fate.

Given that other highly violent zombie titles like Dead Rising (banned from sale in Germany) and House of the Dead Overkill (not released in Germany) passed the rating process without problems, this will surely lead to more intense discussions about the future of Australia's censorship system. Hopefully for the better.


Kiwi Government Censor: Prosecute Parents Who Give Violent Games to Kids

What's up with the other end of the world all of a sudden? First Australia plans to spend millions of dollars on an inane net fiter that is perfectly suited to censor free speech and would make one of the slowest internets of the Western world even slower; then New Zealand contemplates to introduce a draconian copyright law.

And now this: New Zealand's chief government censor has called for the prosecution of parents who give their children access to violent video games. Anyone letting his children play GTA could face up to three months in prison or a fine of $10,000.

His reasoning:

They might think the offence is silly, but it ain't... That's what the law says, but... you're not going to have police officers in every bedroom... There would certainly be some shock value to prosecuting a parent who gives their under-18 child access to a restricted game. It would send out a message that the enforcement agency means business.

I think the word 'game' can mislead people for sure. It's not checkers. For the first time in history, kids are more savvy with technology than parents... parents need to get up to speed on the digital divide. They need to look at what their kids are playing and doing...

It should be the pleasure in being able to sleep at night knowing that you have done the right thing by your kids. That should be the motivating factor.

As Destructoid points out, this proposal would make videogames even more tightly restricted than alcohol, since it would apply to what happens within the family home. So while it's legal for a child to imbibe booze behind closed doors, a medium whose links to violence at the end of the day cannot not be verified is not. Cheers to that!


A Liberal Democracy on Par With China and Saudi Arabia: Australia's 'Net Filter Plan

The internet: decentralised, largely unregulated, not belonging to anyone, knowledge flowing freely. Australia: Traditionally having one of the strictest censorships of a liberal democracy, banning R18+ video games and behind pretty much everyone else in terms of broadband speeds. How do these two mix? Exactly… The Australian Government under Kevin Rudd plans to impose a mandatory filter for all internet users that will block sites found on the secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist and blacklists held by other countries. The cost: AUS$189 million. The result:

Laboratory test results released in June by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found available filters frequently let through content that should be blocked, incorrectly block harmless content and slow network speeds by up to 87 per cent.

Where to begin… First of all there's the technical aspect: All the experts might want to read this piece on Arstechnica, which in very technical terms explains why this scheme is doomed to fail; for the rest of us there's this Register article pointing out some of the issues encountered with censorship software in other parts of the world:

Problems with "socialism" were highlighted in a piece this week in the Australian Daily Telegraph, which gleefully pointed up the link between Labour and male impotence. Apparently, filters in other countries have hit problems with their ideology for the simple reason that it also contains the word "cialis" – an anti-impotence drug frequently promoted via spam email.

They also cite a story told by former Communications Minister Helen Coonan about the time when she attempted to order some strawberry muffins online. Her department’s filter system took exception to her use of "muff" – and the order did not go through.

Similar issues have occurred over the years in the UK with home-grown filter software that is not fully thought through. In one case, an Insurance company was rather surprised to find that after implementation of its in-house filtering system, direct mail campaigns to Essex, Sussex and Middlesex ceased entirely – as did communication with the inhabitants of Scunthorpe.

A couple of years back, respondents to a Home Office Consultation in the UK were surprised to find some submissions automatically rejected by a filtering system set up in one part of that Department. The consultation was on the subject of extreme pornography – and the filter took exception to receiving emails with the word "pornography" in the title.

Secondly there's the issue of free speech. As explained here the Government has been pursuing a two-tiered scheme. The first tier would be a "clean feed" that filters porn and "illegal content," and it would be optional. The second tier would filter only "illegal content" and would be mandatory for all Australians. In short: Australians won't be able to opt out of the government's Internet filtering initiative.


This of course raises the question: What defines "illegal"? Apparently only half of the - secret and unaccountable - ACMA blacklist consists of child porn while the rest is mainly X-rated porn and sexual fetish material. And of course the calls for more are coming in: A statement by Family First member Steve Fielding indicates that any material rated above R 18+ (including X 18+ and "refused classification") should fall under the mandatory blacklist and could not be accessed through any Australian ISP. Such material is currently legal for Australian adults.

And it doesn't stop at porn:

"Any group with an axe to grind and political clout will be lobbying the Government to blacklist websites which they object to," EFA spokesman Dale Clapperton said.


Greens Senator Scott Ludlam expressed similar concerns when grilling Senator Conroy in Senate Estimates last week.

He said all sorts of politically sensitive material could be added to the blacklist and otherwise legitimate sites - for example, YouTube - could be rendered inaccessible based on content published by users.

"The blacklist ... can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes - euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet," Senator Ludlam said.

Will disagreeable Wikipedia articles be banned? Reports by the opposition which highlight the failures of the Government in charge? Articles denying climate change? Where do extremist views start and stop?

Then there's potential of Big Content throwing another hissy fit about piracy: Will it be ringing up the Aussie government soon to have tracker sites added to the blacklist?

As Michael Malone, managing director iiNet, puts it:

"[This] is happening in two other countries - China and Saudi Arabia, that's who he's [Communications Minister Stephen Conroy] lined himself up with."

Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has another evil example at hand:

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world."

In short: The scheme is expensive, won't work technically, abuses of civil liberties, impairs free speech and makes an abysmally slow internet even more slower.

No wonder that, except for some fringe groups who would like to push their moral agenda onto the rest of the Australian people, no one likes the idea.

The head of one of Australia's largest ISPs has labelled the Communications Minister the worst we've had in the past 15 years while political activists GetUp have raised over $30,000 in less than a day to support their fight against the filter.

Ed Coper, campaigns director at GetUp, said the response to the anti-censorship campaign had been "astronomical" and "quite unprecedented".

Almost 80,000 people have signed GetUp's petition and the organisation has created a widget that website owners can embed on their sites, which allows their visitors to sign the petition and obtain more information about the filtering plans.

Even children's welfare groups and NSW Young Labor has criticised the Government's filtering plans. Young Labor passed a motion rejecting the mandatory scheme and calling on Senator Conroy to adopt a voluntary opt-in system whereas Holly Doel-Mackaway, adviser with Save the Children, the largest independent children's rights agency in the world, said educating kids and parents was the way to empower young people to be safe internet users.

She said the filter scheme was "fundamentally flawed" because it failed to tackle the problem at the source and would inadvertently block legitimate resources.

So what does the Government do? Right, it tries to bully critics into silence, accuses them of supporting child pornography, and its pressing ahead with trials but doesn't give any information about the conditions surrounding them…


Australia's R-Rating for Videogames (or Lack Thereof) – It could be worse

Australia is the only Western democracy without a 18+ rating for videogames (the highest rating is 15MA+). Despite talks about changing this, it looks like this is not going to remain the same – one of the main reasons being South Australian Attorney-General, Michael Atkinson. The problem is that all votes concerning a change in the rating system have to be decided unanimously. Unfortunately Atkinson's Christian beliefs keep him from supporting such a change as this would inevitably bring foul and decadent evil to Australian shores and into clean, sane Australian homes – even though 88% of Australians support the R-rating. So much for democracy. Also: Even if there was a consensus to change legislation, it might still take years to come into effect.

Considering that the average Australian game player is 28 one should think that they should be able to make their own informed choices about what they're playing. If they really want to play games they can get them anyway, either through imports or piracy. I'm sure Mr Atkinson is aware that stealing isn't very Christian but this is something his policies eventually encourage. Also if games want to be taken seriously they should incorporate adult content, not only violence but also sexual content matter. Would the gaming equivalent to "The Last Tango in Paris" (whatever that might look like. Certainly not like Mass Effect. And that already drove conservatives crazy) be possible under these circumstances? Banning these things would basically amount to ignoring human nature.

If on the other hand one looks at the issue the other way round and considers which games Australia deems suitable for 15 year-olds the picture isn't actually that bleak. Compared to my hysterical home country Germany, Australia actually seems very relaxed about violent digital games: Between mid-1996 and mid-2007 only 20 out of 7334 games released in Australia were deemed unsuitable for 15 year olds, a meagre 0,272 per cent*. Out of these 20 games, only four were banned for violence while ten were refused classification due to sexual content matter (= sexual violence, nudity, simulated sex/ sexual activity)(editors note: where can we buy these games?).

Games deemed suitable for fifteen year olds in Australia include the uncut versions of Mortal Kombat II and Dead Rising both of which were confiscated by the German public prosecution due to the depiction of excessive acts of violence. They also include Gears of War, Medal of Honour Heroes 2, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Clive Barker's Jericho and Crackdown, games which were refused a classification by German censorship authority USK, upon which their publishers decided not to release the titles. This moreover compares to 492 titles which were classified as not being acceptable for under 18 year olds by the USK between 1 April 2003 and the end of 2007 alone.

So while I can certainly understand the frustration of Australian gamers, things could always be worse. They could live in Germany.

*These numbers were obtained from all OFLC annual reports between 1996-1997 and 2006-2007. They do not account for withdrawn titles nor games that underwent modifications, e.g. the removal of certain violent scenes and game modes, to be released on the Australian market.


The German Left Party and its Understanding of Wikipedia

Considering that German conservatives have several issues with new technology – as for example evidenced in the discussion about the banning of so-called "Killer Games" – one might think that the other end of the political spectrum would be able to offer an alternative to this ungrounded, uninformed fear. But not only do the German Greens seem to be unable to utilise the web for their means, the post-communists of the Left Party have now proven themselves to be clueless in relation to the intertubes – at least their deputy leader Katina Schuber is (pictured). She filed charges against Wikipedia on the on the grounds that its German language site contained too much Nazi symbolism, particularly an article on the Hitler Youth movement. Says Schubert:

"The extent and frequency of the symbols on it goes beyond what is needed for documentation and political education, in my view. This isn't about restricting freedom of opinion, it's about examining what the limits are."

While she later withdrew her absurd charges this leaves a strange aftertaste. The combination of a well known website and a controversial topic makes for an obvious PR-stunt which emanates in Schubert's wish to heighten her profile but eventually just documents her ignorance. It also demonstrates the traditional fear the far left has with independent structures, even when they, like Wikipedia, rest on the principle that everybody can contribute to it. As pretty much every socialist regime demonstrated: The nationalisation of the economy is always followed by the "nationalisation" of thinking.

Add to this a suspicion of technology that curiously not only affects German conservatives. Also, the Left Party seems to be the collecting basin of frustrated pensioners with the average age of its members currently being 65.

Maybe this explains why the Left Party, like the Greens, does not particularly stand out as being innovative in its use of technology to spread its ideas. Point in case: Schubert's website seems to be a leftover from the last century and, similar to the Greens, the absence of blogs on the official website and on the websites of the chairmen – just contrast this with innovative grassroots, left-wing and anarchist networks that operate outside the party arena like indymedia (whose contributors are probably half the age).


It's Not About Manhunt it's About Video Games

Manhunt 2, the latest brainchild of scandal-ridden developer Rockstar, got a hard time all over the world: the English BBFC rejected the title, Ireland and Australia followed suit, while the American ESRB issued a preliminary rating of AO (Adults only) which basically amounts to a ban since most US retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, refuse to carry software rated AO. Accordingly Rockstar decided to temporarily shelve the title.I played the first Manhunt and found its snuff aesthetic sickening. Games like this definitely deserve a high rating and shouldn't get into the hands of minors. Also the whole principle of the title, "its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing" (to quote the BBFC), seems indeed questionable in a more and more "economised" environment with its out of control individualism. But: do these elitist worries justify a ban? Shouldn't every (grown up) individual be able to decide for himself what he wants to consume? Despite having to play the game the censors apparently are still alive and well… What worries me most though is the fact that the distribution of AO games, thanks to the conservative attitudes of corporate America respectively the elitist protection instincts of classification boards is pretty much impossible. Add to this the fact that the console manufacturers (in this case Sony and Nintendo) won't allow AO rated games on their machines. The thing is: through this form of censorship the full development of the medium of digital games in hindered since they are denied the rights of expression traditional media have. Art must contend boundaries, it must resist its industrialisation, and games as a form of art must do so in order to cover the whole range of human emotions – not only when it comes to violence but also to sexuality, one of the most neglected subjects of digital games. The works of the Marquis de Sade are considered classics these days, games on the other hand don't even get the chance to explore similar territories under current circumstances. Sex in movies isn't an issue, also this medium has its erotic classics – a game equivalent of something like The Last Tango in Paris however is unthinkable (though the question remains of how to design a game that conveys these intense emotions). The problem of digital games is that they are trying to strive for respect and artistic expression in an industry with a questionable political economy that is surrounded by moral panics due to the game-illiterate public/ media/ politicians. History tells us that with time this resistance wanes. Let's hope that this is also the case in the sensationalist 21st century.