ACMA Blacklists Iran Protest Video & Boing Boing

ACMA has blacklisted a video showing violence during the Iranian election protests, as well as a Boing Boing post commenting on it.

Censorship causes blindness. Can you see who is blinding you?

On 20 June 2009, a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was shot and killed during the Iranian election protests. Her death was captured on video, and spread virally on the Internet, becoming a rallying cry for the Iranian protests.

Given the notorious attempts by the Iranian government to censor the protests, both online and in the media, I thought it would be fitting to test Senator Stephen Conroy’s assertions that the Government’s proposed mandatory Internet filter was unlike the censorship that occurs in Iran and under other undemocratic regimes.

I submitted the following to ACMA:

I am an Australian resident. I believe the content at the following links is prohibited content or potential prohibited content hosted outside Australia within the meaning of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth).

[URL 1: Boing Boing post with embedded YouTube video showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and associated commentary.]

[URL 2: YouTube video showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.]

[URL 3: YouTube video showing another angle of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.]

Each contains graphic video, apparently real, of a young girl shot in the chest and bleeding to death over the course of a couple of minutes.

The first link has no restrictions for viewing the video (but contains a textual warning). The second two links require registration and a declaration of date of birth (and also contain textual warnings).

The videos document the recent violence in Iran.

I have removed the URLs for legal reasons. If you haven’t already seen these videos, they’re easy enough to find (but be warned: they are graphic).

Today, 64 days later, I received a notice from ACMA confirming that the content was prohibited content.

As part of the ACMA’s investigation of the complaint, it applied to the Classification Board for classification of the content concerned. As a result of the Classification Board’s decision, and as the content is not subject to a restricted access system, it is prohibited content under clause 20(1)(b) of Schedule 7 to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the Act).

The videos are certainly graphic, and I can see why there would be demand for a service that allowed people to avoid content such as this, if that is their individual choice.

However, under both the current and the proposed systems of Internet censorship in Australia, the Classification Board’s decision is binding, to varying degrees, on individuals. For instance, now, Australian-hosted sites cannot link to these videos.

Not the Classification Board or ACMA’s Fault

The Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games provide that the Classification Board classify violent content with an impact higher than ‘strong’ R 18+ and that the Classification Board refuse classification of content that contains gratuitous, exploitative, or offensive depictions of cruelty or real violence that are very detailed or that have a high impact.

The relevant video certainly does have a high impact, and I don’t see a problem with the Classification Board’s decision. It is reasonable.

Similarly, ACMA has an obligation to blacklist (ie, add to the list of websites containing prohibited content, which is distributed to makers of IIA Family Friendly Filters) any site hosting prohibited content overseas. ACMA has no discretion not to blacklist content that meets the statutory definition of prohibited content.

You can, however, blame the people responsible for the law: the members of parliament responsible for passing this law originally, and the members of parliament today responsible for not repealing it.

Not Refused Classification

Although the position was ambiguous initially (and is arguably still uncertain), Senator Stephen Conroy has now stated that the Government wants to constrain mandatory Internet filtering to content that is refused classification (though refused classification content is much broader than his statements suggest).

The notice that I received from ACMA indicates that the content was classified R 18+. It made reference to clause 20(1)(b) of Schedule 7 to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth), which relates to R 18+ content that is not subject to a restricted access system.

Although it’s implied, it’s not absolutely clear that the classification for each of the three submitted URLs was the same.

Because this content was classified R 18+ and not refused classification, this content would not be subject to mandatory filtering under a regime that mandated filtering only of content that has been refused classification.

Banned?

The proposed mandatory Internet filtering will only apply to content hosted outside of Australia. Presently, prohibited content hosted outside of Australia is added to a blacklist that you can opt into. Under the proposed system, the subset of prohibited content that is refused classification content would be blocked mandatorily.

However, none of this applies to sites hosted in Australia. ACMA can still issue a take-down, or link-deletion notice, to any site hosting, or linking to, R 18+ content that is not subject to a restricted access system (or other prohibited content). And you can be fined $11,000 per day if you don’t comply with the notice by 6:00 pm the next business day.

There are also state laws that are relevant. For example, the section  75D of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (SA) makes it an offence to make available or supply R 18+ content using an online service, unless the content is subject to a restricted access system. So, it appears that it’s illegal for South Australians to link to this video (unless they comply with the very onerous restricted access system requirements). The law in your state or territory may vary.

What’s the Point?

The point wasn’t to criticise the Classification Board’s judgment or ACMA’s judgment. They’re merely fulfilling their obligations under the law. The point was to demonstrate how Australian classification law can affect your ability to view significant material because it is disturbing.

It also illustrates the hopeless of trying to suppress content on the Internet. It took 64 days for ACMA to respond to the complaint, and it’ll take even longer before the content is actually added to the IIA Family Friendly Filters.

Of course, it’s trivial to bypass IIA Family Friendly Filters, and it’ll be just as trivial to bypass any mandatory filter. And there are many sources for this particular content, other than the three URLs that ACMA has now blacklisted.

The final and most important point is that all of this is merely anecdotal. The treatment of this particular content is irrelevant. The question is whether you want to decide what content is significant, and what content is too disturbing, for yourself. Or would you like the Classification Board’s decision to be binding on you?

This post is not intended as legal advice. I make no representations whatsoever as to its quality, and will not be liable for any loss, injury, or damage howsoever resulting from it. Seek independent legal advice.
Censorship chart by Andréia licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Tags: ACMA, ACMA blacklist, censorship, clean feed, Iran election prostests 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan