Fiddling While It Burns

Taming the Digital West

Picture this: entering your lounge room, you find your twelve-year-old child on a chat site populated with hardcore pornography, graphic autopsy photos, and casual joking about racism, paedophilia and the Holocaust. How would you react?

The site is 4chan.org’s ‘/b/’ imageboard – the mad, bad engine-room for much of the emerging online culture; a place where freedom of speech is near-absolute and the Internet is sardonically referred to as ‘serious business’.

This obscene, gibbering bacchanalia might seem like Gomorrah to the newcomer, but it is home to a growing and thriving subculture that has been making its presence felt in the mainstream for years.

Who are these digital anarchists? In the years since the Internet went mainstream, a new generation has grown up expecting the freedom to say and do as they wish online. It’s an attitude which increasingly runs afoul of authority, as the online world becomes more visible and the tendrils of government power find their way into cyberspace.

They call themselves ‘The Anonymous’. They congregate on the imageboards which sprang up early in the decade, the most (in)famous being 4chan. They ooze world-weariness and the cheap cynicism of middle-class teenagers; they identify each other through endless in-jokes or ‘memes’. They were exposed to pornography and imagery of all sorts from an early age, and it holds no fear for them. In the world of Anonymous, only outsiders, the old and the feeble-minded take offence – and they, it is argued, had it coming.

Encyclopaedia Dramatica (ED) CEO Joseph Evers knows a thing or two about Anonymous. His US-based site, which began as a lampoon of the self-serious Wikipedia, has become a sort of moving cultural record of the Anonymous world, attracting massive amounts of page traffic and intense controversy.

He sees the Anonymous culture as an expression of middle- and working-class disenchantment. “Young people are overwhelmingly looking at the life their parents led, and how hard they worked, and what they got for it – which was garbage, y’know? – and you work like a slave, and you barely get to eke out a standard of living, and hopefully, you won’t end up in crippling debt at the end of your life. No one wants to buy that garbage anymore, and they’re expressing their discontent.”

This is also his explanation for the nastier aspects of the Anonymous culture, such as the vandalising of Facebook tribute pages and the denial of service attacks which keep websites down for days. “I see that as a very insignificant form of social unrest,” he says. “Revolutions typically have to happen with bloodshed, and the fact that people are expressing their dissent by DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks and page defacements is a lot more humane than them coming to you with a gun and threatening you and taking your property.”

Nina Funnell, a media researcher at the University of New South Wales, agrees to an extent. “No doubt these sites adopt and depict images and ideas that are deeply offensive,” she says, “but there is a politics behind this that is far more complex and sophisticated than what is often gleaned on first interaction.”

Ms. Funnell believes these sites operate as a form of public rebellion. She sees them as a cathartic outlet, “a pressure valve for those who would otherwise feel disengaged and silenced.”

The Federal Government prefers to plug the valve. With Communications Minister Stephen Conroy leading the charge, it intends to introduce a compulsory filter for the internet. The filter will be based on a secret blacklist, which will block all content considered to fall into the ‘Refused Classification’ content category. Revealing the contents of the blacklist will be an offence; promulgating ways to circumvent it will be, too.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) are the plan’s most avid supporters. “We support internet filtering because we think it’s very important to make the internet a safe place for children,” says Glynis Quinlan, public relations manager for the ACL. “Just as it’s important that there are safeguards in place as to which films you can watch and what magazines you can buy, the internet also needs safeguards.”

Attempts at internet censorship have a bad history. In 1999, the Howard government’s solution, software that cost $84 million to develop, was cracked by a 16-year-old in half an hour. The new internet service provider (ISP)-based technology is no more foolproof – programs that will bypass it are already widely available.

More embarrassingly, the blacklist at the heart of the technology was leaked last year, and contained the websites of the Australian Sex Party and a dentist. The planned filter will ban positive discussion of euthanasia, safe drug use and anorexia, and is opposed by a consensus of industry experts. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has indicated that major online marketplaces Amazon and eBay will also be blocked, because they sell R-rated video games banned from sale in Australia.

Quinlan is sanguine about the technical setbacks. “Technology is rapidly developing all the time. Obviously as we go on, it’s going to get much more advanced and sophisticated.”

When asked about the restriction of free speech, she is likewise unconcerned. Of euthanasia, she says “a site that encourages someone to assist in the murder of someone else is currently illegal, and it’s quite right that it should be blocked.” About the blacklist as a whole, “things don’t just automatically get blocked… people make complaints, it gets examined, and someone decides whether it goes on the blacklist or not.”

Anonymous, however, doesn’t like censorship, and has already started striking back. In February this year, ‘Operation Titstorm’ meant major government websites were down for several days due to cyber-attacks. Government departments were bombarded with black faxes, and spammed with pornographic images. This was only the most notable of dozens of attacks and protests.

The implementation of the filter was recently put back until after the next federal election, but the ALP remains committed to it. According to Joseph Evers, the plan has already made Australia a laughing-stock. “I value my right to political free speech, and so do other people,” he says. “Should this Australian filter go into effect we will be distributing ways to the Australian populace to get around it.”

Nina Funnell has heard of another plan: anonymous hackers have told her they will be adding sites to the blacklist. “The first website to be added, of course, will be Senator Conroy’s site, followed by the ACL’s site, and the sites of other groups who have pushed for the filter. Imagine the embarrassment and the public relations nightmare that would cause Conroy’s people.”

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