Censoring online drug discussion

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

8 thoughts on “Censoring online drug discussion”

  1. Senator Conroy’s Bill will further disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged by making advice on safety even less accessable to those people.

    People who are well-advantaged will simply side-step his filter. See http://img1.imagehousing.com/100126/cabb5711c08bae446c2cd81143cf5ed0.jpg for a visual representation of this.

    It is also the thin end of a wedge for Chinese style net censorship.

    This is most un-Australian behaviour on the part of the senator.

  2. I think that the whole idea of censorship of the internet is a problem. This medium, by its very nature, is liquid and gives access to a wider variety of information than your local library books. As soon as we start to censor this, the internet ceases to be useful.

    With topics like drug use, sex information, alternative lifestyles, etc. morte information can ONLY be better. By censoring these things, we remove perspectives of others from those who can benefit from more information.

    Shame, shame, shame, mAustralian Government…

  3. @philhart That comic does represent the impending situation well. And I agree, if this proposed policy is implemented, the ‘information gap’ on taboo topics like drug use and sex is likely to widen.

    @AtheistClimber I agree that censoring the internet is problematic. I also believe that the more information on taboo topics, the better; but there is a line that most people draw at the most extreme end (kiddy porn, hardcore violent porn) where ‘censorship’ is expected. Some people apply the same logic to drug use information as they see it as aiding criminal behaviour, and this is how the current censorship laws may be applied to block drug information sites, according to the ‘Untangling the Net’ report. If the health and social value of such sites is demonstrated, perhaps these sites can be spared if this policy is introduced.

  4. Interesting post. I submit to you the following.

    1. Internet filtering is being sold to the Australian public as a method by which children are protected from child pornography.

    2. The Australian public are extremely unlikely to engage in any in-depth analysis of the issues presented due to their inability to understand either the technology or realisation that the Internet is in fact a real space for real interaction.

    3. How does one quantify the health and social value of any site? if you are talking about a real world translation and measurable benefit, this will be impossible to quantify.

    The most likely outcome is that we will end up with a filtered internet connection despite the fact that it will completely fail at what has been claimed is its primary goal as it can not filter the vast majority of distribution technologies, nor can it filter VPN connections nor other innumerable protocols. Given this fact, what are we the community going to do about it?

  5. Thanks kosmos. I agree on 1 and 2. What a scary situation! I also agree that it is difficult to quantify ‘the health and social value’ of a site. I wrote this about drug forums because pretty much the only press they’ve gotten thus far is negative. Examples of people who have been positively influenced by participating in online drug discussion exist, but their documentation is scarce. My fortcoming thesis is an attempt to do this.

    What should we do about it? Use our voting power. Inform people who aren’t aware. The article I link to above by David Olsen:
    suggests we should focus on the potential for political censorship. That has a much broader appeal than the drugs, sex and internet freedom lines of argument.

  6. Hey Mon,

    I’ve been thinking about what you wrote, especially the last section where you pointed out that ‘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.’ This is certainly true because the idea of the drug user being someone who is responsible and who takes steps to reduce the harmful consequences of drug use is hardly in mainstream public debates. The dominant portrait of the drug user/drug use that we in mainstream public debates is an overwhelming negative one—i.e. ‘Research show that drug use is linked to this or that dangerous behaviour’, ‘Another kid has died on this or that drug at a rave party’, etc.

    So one key issue, as I see it, is to challenge the terms of existing debates, which have been dominated by those researches that are quick to point out the evils of drug use. But from a methodological point of view, those arguments are always problematic. I mean, I don’t have to elaborate on this, I’m sure you know how those supposedly ‘objective’ researches that link drug use to this or that are not as straightforward as they are made to look. This is where I think your comparison with the moral panic surrounding other media use is insightful. Studies drawing links between videogames/pornography/violent films and this or that behaviour often make the news. But again, these studies are usually problematic. Speaking from my disciplinary perspective, one problem with these studies is that they do not seek to understand the complexities of media consumption and/or the interpretation process that media consumers go through. Most importantly, they do not engage with those people who consume pornography, video games, etc, ON THEIR OWN TERMS, nor do they seek to understand the person’s interest in such things within the context of their specific social and cultural environment rather than in an artificial environment. It is all too easy to get a bunch of people—who perhaps are only occasional videogamers—put them in a room, make them play a violent game, and then test their levels of aggression. It should be clear to you how problematic this is. YET, this is the kind of research that makes the news; this is the kind of research that sets the agenda for public debates.

    I may have mentioned this to you: An ex-lecturer of mine completed a 3-year ARC project on pornography. He and his co-researchers analysed the top-selling pornography videos in Australia and also spoke to pornography users. The results of the research, as you might expect, contradicted the usual assumptions about pornography. They didn’t find as many ‘harmful’ depictions of sex in those videos as people would normally assume of pornography. Their study of pornography users produced qualitative and quantitative data that did not show the usual correlations between pornography and ‘harmful’ effects—in fact, some of them come across as ‘responsible’ pornography users. As you might expect, with a topic like pornography, he was soon interviewed about the research. He would then present these contradictory findings. In most instances, the interviewers would inevitably ask, ‘Well, doesn’t it depend on how you define “harmful”, and also who you choose to speak to?’ At which point, he would go, ‘Yes, exactly! That’s what I’m trying to point out.’ Because he had the data, because he played the ‘numbers game’, he was able to bring a different point of view into public debates. But most importantly, he was able to bring attention to questions of methodological, and thereby begin to expose the methodological assumptions underlying dominant discourses and challenge the terms of existing debates.

    Without knowing the details of your work, I think you could be in a position to challenge public debates in a similar manner. Your study of drug users and drug forums, I assume, has produced data that would contradict the common assumptions about them. Your study could also bring attention to methodological problems underlying those researches that dominate public debates. Unlike those researches that paint a monochromal picture of drug use, you’ve actually engaged with drug users on their own terms, and in a way that is sensitive to the multi-varied circumstances of drug use. It may not necessarily change public perceptions immediately, but you could at least start to unsettle the existing terms of debate.

    Please excuse me if I’ve been overly simplistic here. I am, after all, speaking outside my area of expertise. As I see it, one way to challenge dominant discourses on drugs is to challenge them on their own terms. These dominant discourses hide various methodological assumptions whilst maintaining the appearance of being ‘objective’ and sound. But I say take the game to them!


  7. I meant to say at the end, ‘Take the game to them, even if–especially if–this means you lay your own methodological assumptions open to criticism.’

  8. Thank you so much Ed. What an inspiring comment!

    No, I don’t think you are talking outside of your field. The sanctioned discourse about drugs, sex, porn, video games, etc… imposes terms of references upon these topics. Unless other ways of approaching these taboo areas have been constructed (by us, for us, through us), we can only continue to tred the well-known mainstream path.

    I have always hoped that I could be someone who bridges between the perspectives of drug users and the perspectives of people who write policies about drugs. So often, there seems to be a huge gap, with both sides feel the ‘us and them’ keenly. Yet, what if drug users were making the drug policies? What if the boundaries dissolved? 🙂

    Your last comment: it can be scary to put yourself and your work ‘out there’ for completely public scrutiny. You may feel this yourself as a fellow PhD student: I can see the flaws in my work all too keenly. I can also see its quality. I just have to finish writing it up. I intend to post pieces and ideas from it, and the entire thing once I’ve passed.

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