‘We need road signs, not secret blacklists’

We need a simple guide from the federal government, online, so your average Australian can know what is acceptable and what’s not in everything from pornography to copyright. ‘We need road signs, not secret blacklists’, Myles Peterson says.

What constitutes an online crime?

By Myles Peterson*

In April, a Swedish court found that the four owner/ operators of popular torrenting site Piratebay.org were guilty of supplying copyrighted material over the internet. Music and film publishers rejoiced, the system worked.

Yet in an archetypical display of how severely the law and the internet have suffered a disconnect, the operational effect of the ruling was next to zero. Piratebay.org soldiers on, seemingly unaffected.

Hits to the website have increased, possibly as a result of all the publicity, and more material has been torrented in the aftermath, not less.

How does that work?

Is online law enforcement akin to Gotham cops chasing Batman? The investigation seems to be ongoing.

Child pornography is championed as an area demanding vigorous investigation and prosecution and its also the one area foreign and local police champion their own efforts. That’s commendable, but in way of analogy its like locking down a murder scene while 20,000 people hoon past at 200km/h, tossing beer cans out the window.

That’s pretty much the state of online law enforcement today. Child porn, and any site with the word ‘jihad’ on it, get all the attention, while everything else seems to go by the wayside.

If surveys are to be believed, anywhere between 30 and 70% of Australians with MP3 players are harboring material which breaches local or foreign copyright law. If we were talking about fraud, assault or illegal drug use (wait, scratch that last one), there would be an uproar. Yet despite those annoying trailers at the start of hired DVDs, digital piracy is an increasingly common behaviour.

As previously reported, levels in Australia and internationally have skyrocketed since the onset of the global financial crisis.

Prosecuting the worst crimes counts, but if the majority of so-called crimes go without investigation, even without notice, then how well are our law enforcement officials doing their jobs? Or are they acting like gatekeepers, choosing to turn a blind eye due to the sheer volume of violations? That’s not their job.

Letting the police choose what to prosecute creates a dangerous precedent. Next thing they’ll be choosing who to prosecute.

Adding to the weight of public derision, the April Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) meeting again failed to resolve the continuing issue of video games censorship. With the media distracted by anti-freedom of association laws (the bikie laws), they didn’t even raise the video gaming issue publicly.

Video games continue to remain the one media where anything deemed suitable only for adults is automatically refused classification and banned. Penalties for importing or distributing such titles are severe (although again, cases of actual enforcement are incredibly rare).

Games that have been caught in the net of Australia’s censorship regime range from 90s hit Duke Nukem 3D to modern classics such as the Grand Theft Auto series.

A few months ago a source close the Australian Federal Police suggested that the organisation may be conducting the surveillance and profiling of online gaming clans and guilds. What a story! I thought and embarked on a fruitless investigation.

Three months later I’m ready to confess the AFP probably isn’t listening in on your inane guild chat, but just to salvage something from it all, in the context of this piece, why aren’t they?

Guilds and clans are international organisations, often containing technically skilled individuals of like political and religious culture. They frequently use more sophisticated communications technology than leading-edge businesses and train daily at performing complex team tasks. They’re a good breeding ground for capable 21st century criminal organisations, terrorist or otherwise. (They’re also good breeding grounds for 21st century virtual office workers, managers, even science researchers, but that’s another article).

Our online law enforcement officials are rightly obsessed with child pornography, but they seem to do nothing about the rest of what goes on online. Part of the blame lies with an uninformed public. We all know speeding is illegal, there’s signs everywhere.

But only the most self-informed well-studied legal mind would know what’s legal and illegal online. Law enforcement themselves confess to be at a loss when international jurisdictions, fair use policies or public broadcast issues come into play.

A guide would be handy. A federal document, preferably online, in plain English that lays down what is legally acceptable and unacceptable for the average Australian. From the icky, definitions of pornography, to the extremely helpful, clueing us all in as to whether grabbing a new episode of Dexter or Desperate Housewives is OK.

We don’t need secret blacklists nobodys heard off. We need ads. We need road signs.

It’s difficult to do the right thing when nobody seems to know or care what it is.

* Myles Peterson is the ‘Switched On’ columnist for the Canberra Times newspaper’s weekly TV guide. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 25 May 2009.

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