Over the last decade, Australians who use psychostimulant drugs have been increasingly using the internet to access drug-related information. This behaviour is occurring as part of a wider trend towards using always-available information (through wireless internet and internet-enabled notebooks and mobile phones) to ‘google’ just about any topic of interest. The difference with drug-related information is that there has traditionally been barriers in place around the distribution of detailed information about illicit drugs in public spaces. While barriers do exist for Australian-hosted websites containing content that could be refused classification by Australian censors, currently these rules cannot be enforced for overseas-hosted websites. Within this context, drug users have taken the opportunity to openly and anonymously share drug-related information and make connections with others with similar histories and interest in drugs.
The public, open nature of many websites that host discussion about illicit drugs has both opportunities and challenges. Allowing open discussion about taboo topics runs the risk of enabling information to disseminate freely that may be inaccurate and risky to those who choose to follow it. Discussions about drugs may glorify their use or not provide enough cautionary advice. On the other hand, open discussion also enables balanced information and strong warnings in an environment where users can ask questions free of the fear of being identified as a drug user. The public nature of these discussions helps with their monitoring by health professionals and law enforcement agencies; a benefit that cannot be said about interactions that occur privately.
Most Australian drug users now live in a context where internet use is embedded in their everyday lives. Over the next 5 years, this embeddedness will only increase. Access to vast amounts of drug-related information online changes the landscape of drug policy. Young adults who are the target of drug prevention campaigns are less likely to believe exaggerated or unrealistic warnings about drugs when they have the ability to easily and quickly check the veracity of such claims. The denial of the benefits and pleasures of drug use cannot continue for the same reason: it is too easy to find contrary information elsewhere. To gain credibility with drug users, the government will need to acknowledge the reality of drug use: its benefits and risks. Doing this while still sending a message that resonates with the rest of the population will be a formidable (if not impossible) task in the present climate fuelled by misrepresentation of all drug users as ‘addicts’ or ‘junkies’.
A key challenge to monitoring and intervening in online drug discussion over the next 5 years is how the Australian internet filter the Labor Party is planning to introduce in 2011 will affect this context of open public information. Should the filter be applied in its current form, websites hosting detailed instructions regarding drug taking would be refused classification and Australian ISPs will be directed to block such sites if hosted overseas. Should this happen, such material will be unavailable to Australians unless they use proxy connections to connect to the material through overseas-hosted hubs.
It is unclear how Australian drug users will react to this development. One of the major benefits of public online drug discussion is the ability of authorities to watch and react to the information posted. Drug users who lose access to drug information websites may use easily-available tools to set up new websites that bypass the filter through virtual private networks and secure http sites. Peer-to-peer traffic will also remain unmonitored. Should drug discussion move exclusively to these domains, it will become more clandestine and, consequently, harder for officials to track and respond to.
While the presence of detailed information that instructs people how to use a drug may encourage its use, a significant proportion of people will use a drug anyway, with or without instructions. Given that most instructional information about drug use available online is aimed at assisting users refine techniques of use to reduce possible harms, making this information harder to get forces drug users to rely more heavily upon their (offline) social networks for this instruction. The potential for inaccurate information exists in both online and offline information sources. Should these forms of information become banned in the online public domain, they will be harder to monitor and harder to critique. It will be critical to monitor such developments before, during and after the introduction of ISP-level filtering proposed by the federal government.
While there has been significant protest against the proposed internet censorship plans, these have mainly been among the internet-savvy proportion of the Australian population. The debate is yet to be known and understood by the average voter. In truth, the protection of drug user rights to free information and a chance to reduce the harms of their use may not sit well with the average voter either. However, what about fiction that contains detailed information about drug taking? Video games which simulate drug taking? Will Underbelly be taken off air? Quite possibly. How the debate plays out in the next month or so when the legislation is tabled in parliament will be critical to the future of public, open, online drug discussion in Australia.
More on the language needed for the #nocleanfeed campaign to reach a wider audience here