Is Internet filtering ever justified?

Australian Labor party leader Kim Beazley has been pushing for Internet filtering at the ISP level, to provide a “clean feed” for Australian families. The idea would be for ISPs to blacklist particular websites that are known to have pornographic content, so that children will not be exposed to objectionable content.

While something should be done to curb Internet pornography, I’m not sure that filtering at the ISP level is a better idea than installing filters at the PC level (or eliminating the problem at its source, by pursuing the offending website operators). As Communications Minister Helen Coonan has pointed out, ISP filtering may have an effect on Internet performance. The system would also be costly to maintain–which cost would be passed on to consumers.

But more importantly than this, an Internet filtering system (even for porn), is starting to sound like a little too much Government for me. Google and Yahoo! (among others) have been under intense criticism for caving to Chinese pressure, which has resulted in filtering out search results that are offensive to the Chinese government–namely anything that undermines the political orthodoxy. While removing pornography from childrens’ eyes is infinitely more desirable, isn’t filtering at the ISP level objectionable in terms of our own rights? I am not speaking up for pornography, but how is this kind of censorship really any different than the Chinese kind?

I hesitate to mention “freedom of speech” and the like because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights that specifically protects such things–although it is common thinking that the Australian Constitution does protect such rights. But even if you do not accept this argument, I would think that the concept of an open democracy supports the idea that adults should be treated as adults. If we want to eliminate pornography, we should go to the source of the problem.