A new online safety bill could allow censorship of anyone who engages with sexual content on the internet



shutterstock.

Zahra Zsuzsanna Stardust, UNSW

Under new draft laws, the eSafety Commissioner could order your nude selfies, sex education or slash fiction to be taken down from the internet with just 24 hours notice.

Officially, the Morrison government’s new bill aims to improve online safety.

But in doing so, it gives broad, discretionary powers to the commissioner, with serious ramifications for anyone who engages with sexual content online.

Broad new powers

After initial consultation in 2019, the federal government released the draft online safety bill last December. Public submissions closed on the weekend.

The bill contains several new initiatives, from cyberbullying protections for children to new ways to remove non-consensual intimate imagery.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant
Julie Inman Grant was appointed as the government’s eSafety Commissioner in 2016.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Crucially, it gives the eSafety Commissioner — a federal government appointee — a range of new powers.

It contains rapid website-blocking provisions to prevent the circulation of “abhorrent violent material” (such as live-streaming terror attacks). It reduces the timeframe for “takedown notices” (where a hosting provider is directed to remove content) from 48 to 24 hours. It can also require search engines to delete links and app stores to prevent downloads, with civil penalties of up to $111,000 for non-compliance.

But one concerning element of the bill that has not received wide public attention is its takedown notices for so-called “harmful online content”.

A move towards age verification

Due to the impracticality of classifying the entire internet, regulators are now moving towards systems that require access restrictions for certain content and make use of user complaints to identify harmful material.

In this vein, the proposed bill will require online service providers to use technologies to prevent children gaining access to sexual material.




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Controversially, the bill gives the commissioner power to impose their own specific “restricted access system”.

This means the commissioner could decide that, to access sexual content, users must upload their identity documents, scan their fingerprints, undergo facial recognition technology or have their age estimated by artificial intelligence based on behavioural signals.

But there are serious issues with online verification systems. This has already been considered and abandoned by similar countries. The United Kingdom dropped its plans in 2019, following implementation difficulties and privacy concerns.

The worst-case scenario here is governments collect databases of people’s sexual preferences and browsing histories that can be leaked, hacked, sold or misused.

eSafety Commissioner as ‘chief censor’

The bill also creates an “online content scheme”, which identifies content that users can complain about.

The bill permits any Australian internet user to make complaints about “class 1” and “class 2” content that is not subject to a restricted access system. These categories are extremely broad, ranging from actual, to simulated, to implied sexual activity, as well as explicit nudity.

In practice, people can potentially complain about any material depicting sex that they find on the internet, even on specific adult sites, if there is no mechanism to verify the user’s age.

Screen shot of YouPorn website
The potential for complaints about sexual material online is very broad under the proposed laws.
http://www.shutterstock.com

The draft laws then allow the commissioner to conduct investigations and order removal notices as they “think fit”. There are no criteria for what warrants removal, no requirement to give reasons, and no process for users to be notified or have opportunity to respond to complaints.

Without the requirement to publish transparent enforcement data, the commissioner can simply remove content that is neither harmful nor unlawful and is specifically exempt from liability for damages or civil proceedings.

This means users will have little clarity on how to actually comply with the scheme.

Malicious complaints and self-censorship

The potential ramifications of the bill are broad. They are likely to affect sex workers, sex educators, LGBTIQ health organisations, kink communities, online daters, artists and anyone who shares or accesses sexual content online.

While previous legislation was primarily concerned with films, print publications, computer games and broadcast media, this bill applies to social media, instant messaging, online games, websites, apps and a range of electronic and internet service providers.

Open palms holding a heart shape and a condom.
Sex education material may be subject to complaints.
http://www.shutterstock.com

It means links to sex education and harm reduction material for young people could be deleted by search engines. Hook up apps such as Grindr or Tinder could be made unavailable for download. Escort advertising platforms could be removed. Online kink communities like Fetlife could be taken down.

The legislation could embolden users – including anti-pornography advocates, disgruntled customers or ex-partners – to make vexatious complaints about sexual content, even where there is nothing harmful about it.

The complaints system is also likely to have a disproportionate impact on sex workers, especially those who turned to online work during the pandemic, and who already face a high level of malicious complaints.

Sex workers consistently report restrictive terms of service as well as shadowbanning and deplatforming, where their content is stealthily or selectively removed from social media.




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The requirement for service providers to restrict children’s access to sexual content also provides a financial incentive to take an over-zealous approach. Providers may employ artificial intelligence at scale to screen and detect nudity (which can confuse sex education with pornography), apply inappropriate age verification mechanisms that compromise user privacy, or, where this is too onerous or expensive, take the simpler route of prohibiting sexual content altogether.

In this sense, the bill may operate in a similar way to United States “FOSTA-SESTA” anti-trafficking legislation, which prohibits websites from promoting or facilitating prostitution. This resulted in the pre-emptive closure of essential sites for sex worker safety, education and community building.

New frameworks for sexual content moderation

Platforms have been notoriously poor when it comes to dealing with sexual content. But governments have not been any better.

We need new ways to think about moderating sexual content.

Historically, obscenity legislation has treated all sexual content as if it was lacking in value unless it was redeemed by literary, artistic or scientific merit. Our current classification framework of “offensiveness” is also based on outdated notions of “morality, decency and propriety”.




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Research into sex and social media suggests we should not simply conflate sex with risk.

Instead, some have proposed human rights approaches. These draw on a growing body of literature that sees sexual health, pleasure and satisfying sexual experiences as compatible with bodily autonomy, safety and freedom from violence.

Others have pointed to the need for improved sex education, consent skills and media literacy to equip users to navigate online space.

What’s obvious is we need a more nuanced approach to decision-making that imagines sex beyond “harm”, thinks more comprehensively about safer spaces, and recognises the cultural value in sexual content.The Conversation

Zahra Zsuzsanna Stardust, Adjunct Lecturer, Centre for Social Research in Health, Research Assistant, Faculty of Law and Justice, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How China is controlling the COVID origins narrative — silencing critics and locking up dissenters


John Garrick, Charles Darwin University and Yan Bennett, Princeton University

Just over a year has gone by since the novel coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and the world still has many questions about where and how it originated.

The World Health Organisation is sending a team to China this week to investigate the origins of the virus — which has now claimed nearly 2 million lives globally — but one health expert warns expectations for the visit should be set “very low”.

The Chinese government has greatly restrained any attempts to investigate the origins of COVID-19 — both internally and by foreign experts — while at the same time advocating alternate theories that the pandemic originated elsewhere.

The top leadership sees control over this narrative as vital to its hold over the Chinese population and the boosting of its international reputation.




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The stakes could not be higher because Beijing has presented the Communist Party’s strong, centralised rule as the key to the country’s success at controlling the pandemic and reviving its economy.

This has been contrasted with disastrous efforts to control the disease in the US under the Trump administration. The state-run Global Times has called the US a “living hell”.

Against this backdrop, Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the WHO investigation team

will have to be politically savvy and draw conclusions that are acceptable to all the major parties.

Citizen journalists disappear after reporting the truth

Part of controlling the Communist Party narrative has entailed the detention of many citizen journalists who sounded the alarm about the virus in its early days, exposed the government’s attempts to cover it up and criticised its early response to control it.

In late December, one of these independent journalists, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years imprisonment for the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

A former lawyer, Zhang travelled to Wuhan in February to talk to people about how they were coping in lockdown. She shared videos and talked about what she observed, at one point noting the fear people felt toward the government was actually greater than their fear of the virus.

In an interview before her detention, she said

Maybe I have a rebellious soul … I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?

Some of Zhang’s video reports from Wuhan.

Zhang is just one of many critics whom the government has attempted to silence.

Chinese law professor Xu Zhangrun was detained by police for a week after writing articles critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and then fired from his position at a university. He remains under surveillance and has been banned from leaving Beijing, but he continues to write.

Others have simply disappeared. The outspoken lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing in February after reporting from Wuhan and didn’t reappear until late September. He also remained under “strict supervision” by the authorities.

And Wuhan businessman Fang Bin, who was detained in early February after posting videos purporting to show COVID victims inside hospitals, hasn’t been heard from since.

Using the security system and courts to target civil society

Under Xi’s leadership, the Communist Party has become increasingly vigorous in guarding the official propaganda around party ideology and Xi’s rule from any form of criticism.

While Xi emphasised in a 2013 speech the importance of the propaganda and “ideological leadership” to the country, the pandemic has allowed China’s party-state to extend its ideological control over the courts, eliminating any pretence of judicial autonomy.

This manipulation of rule-of-law institutions can be seen in the prosecution of citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan and anyone else who questions or criticises the official party line.




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Marxist scholars and party propagandists argue there are no contradictions between party ideology and “rule of law”. In China, they say, there is no need for a legal separation of powers to ensure justice because the party is the ultimate expression of the people’s will when it comes to law and order.

In essence, the Communist Party is the rule of law, with Chinese characteristics.

The party has long used the security system and courts in this way to “kill chickens to scare monkeys” (a Chinese idiom meaning to punish an individual as an example to others).

In the past, the targets have typically been prominent political dissidents, such as Liu Xiaobo and Wei Jingsheng, and human rights lawyers.

What is new and disturbing is the use of this tactic to eradicate all dissent and perceived threats to the party’s rule from civil society. Those targeted in recent years include Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun, Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei, as well as many foreigners.

Jimmy Lai has been charged with foreign collusion.
Jimmy Lai (centre) is charged with alleged foreign collusion under Hong Kong’s new national security law.
Kin Cheung/AP

Forced silence does not mean public belief

This domestic political context makes it unlikely the WHO researchers will be allowed to fully investigate all hypotheses as to the origins of the coronavirus, such as the claim it could have been caused by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Although China’s so-called “Bat Woman”, virologist Shi Zhengli, has said she’d welcome a visit by the WHO team to the lab, leaked government documents tell another story.




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According to the documents, published by the Associated Press this month, the government is monitoring scientists’ findings and requiring any research to be approved by a new task force under Xi’s direct command before publication.

Zhang’s case reveals how challenges to official narratives are now being dealt with in China. It also shows that Chinese citizens do not always find official narratives convincing and propagandists cannot force them to believe in ideology. The forced silencing of critics does not equate to people believing in the official party line.

With the origins of COVID-19, China’s citizens — and the world — deserve truth, not politically convenient spin.The Conversation

John Garrick, University Fellow in Law, Charles Darwin University and Yan Bennett, Assistant Director, Princeton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran: Controlling Its Citizens on the Web


The link below is to an article that reports on the way Iran controls the Internet in that country and what it allows its people to see.

For more visit:
http://mashable.com/2012/07/23/iran-citizens-freedom-web/

Azerbaijan: Latest Persecution News


The following links are to articles reporting on the latest persecution news coming from Azerbaijan, including religious book censorship and the closing of a Christian church.

For more, visit:
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue16134.html
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue16145.html

Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force


Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

TURKMENISTAN: “I WANT TO KNOW IF I CAN IMPORT RELIGIOUS BOOKS”


Turkmenistan continues to impose strict censorship on religious literature brought into the country, and copies data from personal computers, Forum 18 News Service has been told.

“Which commission decides this?” a Protestant complained, commenting that “they don’t have the right to interfere in my own private life.” Officials always point to an unspecified “commission” which determines what literature is acceptable.

“But who checks the commission which examines the literature?” the Protestant asked. Ethnic Turkmens appear to be more more likely to have material confiscated than ethnic Russians. Frustration has also been expressed to Forum 18 about the impossibility of printing religious literature.

No state official has been willing to explain why religious censorship exists, or who is responsible for it. Shirin Akhmedova, Head of the government’s National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed to the UN Human Rights Council that freedom of expression exists because of the Constitution. This claim, however, is contradicted by the experience of Turkmenistan’s citizens.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

TAJIK PRESIDENT SAYS HE WON’T AMEND NEW LAW ON RELIGION


Tajikistan’s recently adopted law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations will not be changed because it is “clear and accurate,” Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said in his annual address to parliament on Wednesday, reports Interfax-Religion.

“The Republic of Tajikistan guarantees ideological pluralism and equal rights for all religions and faiths,” Rahmon said.

The new law signed by the Tajik head of state in late March has provoked a mixed response both within the country and abroad. The document permits the authorities’ censorship of religious literature, limits the performance of religious rites officially allowed in certain religious venues, allows the authorities to control the activities of religious organizations, and bans prayers at work, in military units and other institutions.

The Islamic Revival Party, Tajikistan’s second largest party and the only legal Islamic party in the CIS, said this week that it would ask parliament to adopt amendments to the law in question because, according to it, this document discriminates against believers and their rights.

Report from the Christian Telegraph