Long time readers will know that one of my favourite bugbears is the R18+ rating for games. It’s not that I’m some masochistic lunatic who revels in violence and depravity, more that I believe that video games aren’t just for children any more and that video games are just a valid medium of expression as any other. The rest of the world seems to have been way ahead of us in this respect with most modern countries having classification schemes that recognize games are able to deal with mature themes and should be rated as such. The campaign to bring Australia in line with the rest of the world has been one that’s been going on for the better part of a decade and even up until recently it seemed like there was no end in sight.
But here we are, 2 years and 12 posts after I first wrote on game censorship, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Just under a month ago I wrote a rather… impassioned piece on the latest developments with the R18+ rating. In essence we were there with all the attorney-generals agreeing to support it. However there was one hold out, AG for NSW Greg Smith, who seemed to be holding out for no good reason in particular. My political genius friend told me that this was probably part of some bigger plan to gain a bit of leverage in other matters, which only made me that much more frustrated at the whole situation. You can then imagine my shock when I read late yesterday afternoon that the NSW cabinet would now give the R18+ rating its full support:
The NSW Government has given its formal support for the introduction of an R18+ classification for computer games, according to Attorney General, Greg Smith SC.
Mr Smith said after a meeting of Federal and State Attorneys General in Adelaide that he expected NSW would join the agreement.
Cabinet has now given its “in-principle” support for the introduction of the R18+ rating.
This is fantastic news and is the first bit of progress we’ve seen in a long time on this matter. However there’s an awful lot of weasel words peppered throughout the AG’s statement, enough to give me a bit of pause before being able to celebrate this as a victory. Sure the in-principle agreement means that they can actually start moving forward with drafting legislation and the issues can be raised as part of that process rather than being the stonewall that we Australians have been butting our heads against for the past decade.
What starts now is the long process of formalizing the guidelines for the R18+ rating and, if I’m reading the press right, a reworking of the MA15+ rating. This isn’t going to be a short process by any stretch of the imagination and I’ll be surprised if we see the rating’s implementation within the next year or so. It also doesn’t mean that every game that got a RC rating under the old scheme will become available under R18+ either and there’s still the question of whether or not games rated under the current system will need to be redone or simply grandfathered in. There’s also the question as to whether R18+ games will require more stringent rules around display and sale since they are in essence a controlled substance much like tobacco and alcohol.
All that being said however I’m still very happy with this announcement. It signals that our politicians have finally recognised that games aren’t just for kids any more and they can be just as expressive as any other medium and should be treated as such. There’s still a long way to go until we catch up with the rest of the modern world but at least now we’re moving towards the end goal rather than chasing our tails constantly. I’m hopeful that today’s revelation marks the last road block coming down and from here on out we’re just going through the motions that will take us to a better, more sensible future.
I try to keep things civil here, you know clearly stating my side of the argument, giving a few facts to support my view and address any counterpoints I’ve come across so my argument seems convincing enough to sway people over to my side of thinking. Part of this is keeping my emotions at bay as whilst an impassioned arguments are sometimes amongst the most convincing they’re also the most susceptible to going off the rails and losing track of their greater goal. Today however a couple articles have crossed my desk that have pushed me past the tipping point and I just need to launch some vitriol at some people I think are total ass holes.
As the title suggests, I’m talking about those jerks who are blocking the R18+ rating in Australia.
So apparently this all began a couple days ago when South Australia announced it was going to drop the MA15+ rating in favour of the R18+. This really should have come as no surprise to anyone as they socialized the idea less than three months ago and whilst the public didn’t seem to like the idea (and really I think everyone was over reacting, but that’s to be expected as Australians are fucking whiners at the best of times) I didn’t think it was too bad. Sure it was another half-assed solution to what should be a trivial issue, but at least it would get the ball rolling in the right direction.
Not long after that less-than-shocking announcement came the real rear-ender, the NSW attorney general Greg Smith announced that he’d be abstaining from voting (I hope he fired his photographer for the picture in that article) on the issue citing some political bullshittery:
“We’re not going down a definitive route,” a spokesperson for Smith told GameSpot AU. “More work needs to be done on this issue. We want to wait to see the results of the ALRC [Australian Law Reform Commission] classification review.”
If Smith takes this position at the SCAG meeting on Friday, it will mean the R18+ for games decision will once again be delayed. For an adult classification for games to be introduced, all of Australia’s state, territory, and federal governments must unanimously agree on its implementation.
For starters who the fuck is “we”? If you’re talking about the Australian public we’ve already clearly stated many times (holy shit, is that a link to an Australian government website showing massive public support? Fuck for Smith’s sake I’d hope not) that we’re in favour of it. Hell with the average age of gamers now being over twice the fucking age limit for those games you’d think we’d be able to handle mature content. According to at least one of our esteemed representatives however we’re not and they want to wait for some long review process to complete before they can make a decision, telling us that more work needs to be done (Are you fucking serious bro? You’ve had over 2 years on this).
Wait a second, I remember who was saying we should wait for the the ALRC classification review to finish before making a decision on R18+: the Australian Christian Lobby (and fuck no I’m not linking to their shit, nor the article I found that supports what I just said. Google that shit yourself for proof). They fucking got to you didn’t they Smith, after all the shit that went down in your electorate and in Victoria you’re now scrambling for support in any sector you can get. Gamers are an easy target since this isn’t an election winning or losing issue (or could it? We’re in a minority government and shit like this could swing it) so you side with the ACL to get their support. Really if this is the case shame on you bro, you’d win a whole lot more people over by supporting this than being a dick about it.
His resistance now leaves us in the unenviable position of either having to actually wait for that review (which realistically only needs to be done for a national scheme) or having the states and territories each implement their own. South Australia is already poised to go down the latter route which will only replicate the same awkward situation we have now with pornography and the ACT. Whilst I’m sure the states will love the increased patronage for services like that it’s not a solution that’s beneficial to Australia itself nor its image in the world community. However you might spin this not implementing the R18+ rating is simply going against the wishes of the vast majority of the Australian public, meaning these Senators are not acting with the best interests of the constituents at heart.
I’m just so fucking tired of having this issue being so close to being resolved and then being taken from me that it’s flipped my rage switch. I keep hoping one day that I’ll wake up to the news that our Senator’s actually listened for once, realized that Australia wants this and then looked back on this whole issue and laughed at ourselves for being so backward. Well it’s been over 2 years since I first blogged about this and nothing’s really changed in that time, so I guess I’d better saddle up for another 2 years worth of disappointment and frustration before I can really hope for any fucking progress on this.
It’s been almost two years since I posted my very first thoughts on the issue of game censorship and back then it was really only an issue because of the impending Internet filter that was threatening to turn Australia into an Internet back water. Thankfully the Internet filter hasn’t yet come to be (although it seems Conroy is still committed to the idea) and the barriers that once stood between the Australian gamers and titles deemed unfit for people half their age have started to come crumbling down. There’s even the possibility of the classification system getting a complete overhaul to do away with the disjunct between states and territories, something which will be beneficial for all Australians.
Up until now however most of the progress we’ve seen has just been in the form of promises and postulation from politicians with little actual progress to show for it. Last week however saw the first few real steps towards actual reform on this issue, something which I wasn’t expecting to see for another couple of months. The first bit of progress that I came across was a draft proposal from Attorney General Brendan O’Connor that outlined what the new R18+ classification guidelines would look like:
“The Gillard Government wants to provide better guidance for parents and remove unsuitable material from children and teenagers. The introduction of an R18+ classification will help achieve that and will also bring Australia into line with comparable nations,” said O’Connor in a statement. “This issue has been on the table for many years, without the necessary progress to make a change. We’ve recently seen several states publicly express their support for an adult only rating for games and I’m keen to reach a unanimous decision at the July meeting.”
Interestingly the proposed R18+ rating would also include reworking the MA15+ rating a bit, mostly adding in restrictions that things like sex, drugs and nudity can’t be linked to rewards and incentives. It’s a pretty small distinction but it does mean certain types of games like say Leisure Suit Larry or Strip Poker will find themselves firmly in the R18+ category (as they probably should) whilst most games currently rated MA15+ won’t be affected by the rating change. It does have the potential to shove quite a few titles into R18+ if you take a broad interpretation of “must not be related to incentives or rewards” for things like leveling up in Call of Duty or Battlefield, but I think the rewards are far enough away from the action for them to skirt around that idea. We’ll have to see what the Australian Classification Board thinks on that one though.
Additionally it looks like the ACB is going out to the public again to seek what the public’s reaction is to the proposed guidelines and R18+ rating. This time around however they’ve gone for a quick survey with a short comment box at the end of it. If you’re in support of the R18+ rating you should head over there now to have your say in this matter as hopefully we can garner the same sort of reaction we did last time they tried this and wrote off the results as “gamed” by the supporters. Realistically they underestimated just how passionate gamers are about this issue, heck my brother even asked me if I had written a submission for it and he’s not one for politics.
Of course the vocal minority has hit out at the proposed guidelines in the usual fashion. I was going to do a take down of their FUD line by line but honestly I don’t want to give them any more air time than what they’ve already got as there’s no swaying them away from their absurd opinions. Just let it be known that the Australian Christian Lobby fervently opposes the R18+ rating as they do anything that could legitimize the behavior of adults that disagrees with their world view, even if it would benefit them in some way.
We’re now only a few short months away from Australia casting off part of its archaic past and stepping towards the future. It’s been a long time coming with many political battles fought and nearly a dozen articles written on the subject by yours truly but finally the Australian gaming community might just be treated for what they are: mostly adults. There’s still many more steps to go before the R18+ rating becomes a reality but progress is now decidedly forwards instead of in circles and that should make every Australian gamer very happy indeed.
It was glorious, we started to see the beginnings of a rational discourse over the whole lack of a R18+ for games and there was hope for an overhaul of our decidedly archaic and convoluted classification system. I was happy, thinking I would soon be living in a country that had cast off the shackles of its past in favor of adopting a more progressive view of the games industry. A country that recognizes that games are predominantly not for children anymore with the vast majority of gamers now grown up, wanting the medium to grow up with them. Realistically I knew it was a small issue, but the fact that it could get dragged out over such a long period of time was the driving factor behind my outrage. I just couldn’t (and still can’t) understand why it has been so difficult.
It was over a year ago that what appeared to be the final wall standing between us and a more rational future was Senator Atkinson came tumbling down with his retirement. We still lost one title to the dreaded Refused Classification black hole in this time but I consoled myself in the fact that soon all of this would be a distant memory, a blip in Australia’s history where it stubbornly refused to modernize for no reason in particular. The news shortly afterwards that reformation was on the horizon was confirmation of this fact and made my spirit soar once again, only to be dashed by this recent news:
LONG-AWAITED reforms of Australia’s censorship of computer games look set to fail after Victoria declared its strong concern that the move will legalise games with ‘‘high levels of graphic, frequent and gratuitous violence’’.
Backed by a groundswell of support from the gaming community, the Gillard government is determined to fix the classification system for computer games, which allows unsuitable games to be rated for 15-year-olds, yet bans popular games for adults.
But the Baillieu government’s Attorney-General, Robert Clark, has echoed the concerns of the Australian Christian Lobby, putting him on a collision course with Canberra, which requires the backing of all states and territories to change classification laws.
The article goes on to say that coalition wants to put the matter to “careful scrutiny and public debate”, happily ignoring the fact that it’s been hotly debated for the last 2 years and had a public consultation that was overwhelmingly positive with 98.2% of respondents supporting the cause. Opponents also ignore the fact that Australia is one of the few modern countries that lacks a R18+ rating for games yet has such a rating for books, films and TV. I probably shouldn’t be surprised as the facts haven’t been the opposition’s strong suit in trying to cut down the R18+ rating in its infancy.
I’ve said it time and time again, the R18+ issue provides nothing but benefits to Australia and it’s gaming populace. The R18+ rating would make parents aware of material that isn’t appropriate for their children, allowing them to regulate the consumption of such materials. It would ensure proper classification of games as well, rather than shoe horning many games into the MA15+ rating that in reality belong in the R18+ category. A R18+ rating would also make Australia far more attractive to developers who are creating games targeted towards adults (I.E. the majority of the consumers in the games industry) instead of them shying away from us for fear of the dreaded RC rating.
The reason that the R18+ rating has languished in this political shitstorm for so long can be almost entirely blamed on a single lobby group: The Australian Christian Lobby. Wherever opposition to the rating is found you can bet your bottom dollar that they’re involved some how, and I’m not just saying this for dramatic effect. Whilst I won’t link to any of their tripe directly, since I don’t think they deserve the attention, a simple search for “R18+ acl” brings back dozens of articles of them supporting the demise of the R18+ rating. Indeed they’ve also been major proponents of other, more aggressive censorship efforts such as the Internet filter going so far as to label my views as “extreme” back when I was heavily involved in the No Clean Feed movement.
The ACL is of course in the minority here since the Australian public is overwhelming in support of a R18+ rating for games. Yet they keep managing to swing people in key positions leaving the battle for the R18+ rating effectively hamstrung. Thankfully the recent ultimatum on either a R18+ or a classification system overhaul (which would be far more painful for those in opposition to endure) shows that there are people willing to stand up to this vocal minority who has shown they can not act rationally when it comes to people doing things they don’t agree with.
It seems my dream of an Australia that finally brought itself into the 21st century are still a long way from being realized and the thorn in my side that was Senator Atkinson has since been replaced by Attorney-General Clark, but there’s still hope on the horizon. One day I’ll be able to buy games built by adults that have been designed to be consume by adults and the ACL won’t be able to say anything about it. Until then however I’ll continue to angrily blog about any development in the R18+ space until it gets fixed and I’ll put in every effort to make sure it becomes a reality.
I won’t let the irrational vocal minority win.
I’m always surprised at the lengths that Google will go to in order to uphold its Don’t Be Evil motto. The start of last year saw them begin a very public battle with the Chinese government, leading them to put the pressure on by shutting down their Chinese offices and even going so far as to involve the WTO. Months passed before the Chinese government retaliated, in essence curtailing all the efforts that Google had gone to in order to operate their search engine the way they wanted to. After the initial backlash with a few companies pulling parts of their business out of China there really wasn’t much more movement from either side on the issue and it just sort of faded into the background.
In between then and now the world has seen uprisings and revolutions in several countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Whilst the desire for change is stronger than any tool services like Twitter, Facebook and Gmail have been instrumental in helping people to gather and organize the movements on scales that would’ve taken much more effort than before. Indeed those in power have recognized the usefulness of these tools as they’ve usually been the first thing that gets cut when a potential uprising begins to hit critical mass. China is known for its harsh stance on protesters and activists and they’re not shy when it comes to interfering with their activities.
It seems that Google has picked up on them doing just that with Gmail:
Google has accused the Chinese government of interfering with its popular Gmailemail system. The move follows extensive attempts by the Chinese authorities to crack down on the “jasmine revolution” – an online dissident movement inspired by events in the Middle East.
According to the search giant, Chinese customers and advertisers have increasingly been complaining about their Gmail service in the past month. Attempts by users to send messages, mark messages as unread and use other services have generated problems for Gmail customers.
Screwing around with their communications is one of the softest forms of oppression that the government can undertake without attracting to much attention. Whilst I believe an uprising on the scale we’ve seen in the middle east is highly improbable in China, thanks entirely to the fact that the sentiment I get from people I know in China is that they like the current government, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t conducting operations to kill any attempts in it’s infancy. They’ve previously targeted other activists with similar attacks in order to gain information on them and that’s what sparked Google’s first outburst against the Chinese government. Why they continue to poke this particular bear is beyond me and unfortunately Google is in the hard position of either continuing to offer services (and all the consequences that follows) or pull out completely, leaving activists in China few options that aren’t at least partially government controlled.
There’s also rumors that the government is now implementing similar technology to their Great Firewall onto the cellular network. Some users are reporting that their phone calls drop out after saying certain phrases, most notably “protest”. Whilst I hesitate to accept that story whole heartedly (the infrastructure required to do that is not outside the Chinese governments ability) there is precedent for them to conduct similar operations with other forms of communication, namely the Internet. Unfortunately there’s no real easy way to test it (doing encrypted calls is a royal pain in the ass) without actually being there so unless some definitive testing is done we’ll just have to put this one down to a rumor and nothing more.
Google has shown several times now that it’s not afraid to go against the Chinese government if they believe their users are under threat from them. It’s unfortunate that there haven’t been many more companies that have lined up behind Google to support them but if they continue to be as outspoken as they are I can’t see them staying silent indefinitely. Of course many Internet services in China are at least partially controlled by the government so any native business there will more than likely remain silent. I don’t believe this is the last we’ll hear on the Google vs China battle but unlike last time I’m not entirely sure it will lead.
As far as I’m concerned the Internet Filter is dead, never to see the light of day again. With the Greens holding the balance of power in the senate and the minority Labor government relying on one Green and three independents in order to pass anything the proposed filter has absolutely no chance of getting through. On the flip side the amendments that would be required to get it through the senate would render the legislation pointless (even more so than it is now) and I don’t think Labor wants to be seen pushing such things through after all the black eyes they got from the past year or so. Still it seems like the dead horse still has a few good beatings left in it and from time to time Senator Conroy will pop up to remind us that it’s still on the table, despite how toxic it has been for them in the past.
Conroy has had the unfortunate luck of getting former Liberal party leader Malcolm Turnbull as his shadow minister and wasted no time ripping into Labor’s policies. Whilst there are some points I agree with Conroy his idea that other countries are filtering somehow justifies the government’s proposal is just plain wrong:
“In Finland, in Sweden, in a range of Western countries, a filter is in place today, and 80, 90, 95 per cent of citizens in those countries, when they use the internet, go through that filter.
“It has no impact on speed and anybody who makes a claim that it has an impact on speed is misleading people.
“If you want to be a strict engineer, it’s 170th of the blink of an eye, but no noticeable effect for an end user. So there is no impact and the accuracy is 100 per cent.”
For all my belly aching about the filter on this blog I’d never touched on the point that in fact yes, some modern western countries had implemented some kind of filter. Sweden’s scheme is the most innocuous of the lot with it merely being a DNS blacklist which will make banned sites just simply not respond (circumvented by using a different DNS provider). Finland’s is similar to Sweden’s in that it is also DNS based but it has been mired with controversy about its accuracy and performance issues that have arisen due to its use. The UK’s is probably the worst of the lot requiring all traffic to be passed through a filter that identifies sites based on the URL provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, a group of 14 people that includes 4 police officers responsible for maintaining the blacklist. Most people in the UK don’t know about this as it’s been around for quite some time and it has also been mired with controversy about its accuracy and accountability.
Depending on the scheme that’s used there is definitely performance impacts to consider. DNS based filtering has the least impact of the lot as a failed DNS query returns quite quickly although it has the potential to slow down sites that load content from blacklisted places¹. The UK’s URL filtering scheme is horrible as it requires the request to be intercepted, inspected and then compared against the list to see whether or not it should be blocked. For small lists and low volumes of traffic this is quite transparent and I have no doubts that it would work. However, even in tests commissioned by Conroy himself, these filters have shown to be unable to cope with high traffic sites should they make it onto the filter. ACMA’s own blacklist has several high traffic sites that would swamp any filter attempting to block them, drastically affecting performance of everyone who was on that filtered connection.
Justifying your actions based on the fact that others are doing it does not make what you do right. Conroy carefully steered clear of mentioning other states that were using censorship schemes that were more closely aligned to what his legislation has proposed (like China and North Korea). The fact remains however that any kind of Internet filter will prove to be ineffectual, inaccurate and will only serve to hurt legitimate users of the Internet. I applaud Conroy’s dedication to his ideas (namely the NBN) but the Internet filter is one bit of policy that he just needs to let go. It’s not winning them any favours anymore and the Labor government really needs all the help it can get over the next 3 years and dropping this turd of a policy would be the first step to reforming themselves, at least in the tech crowd’s eyes.
¹This is a rather contenious point as you could say that any site loading content from a backlisted site more than likely requires blacklisting itself. I’d agree with that point somewhat however the big issue is when a legitimate site gets blacklisted and ends up impacting a wider range of sites. In all the filters there’s been admissions that some material has been inappropriately blocked meaning that there’s always at least the potential for performance impacts.
You know whilst I appreciate that the Internet filter was the trigger for the creation of this blog and has been a healthy source of fodder for me to post on I still wish it would just up and die already. It’s been said time and time again that the filter won’t achieve its goals and will only serve to make Australia more of an Internet backwater than it already is. When you’re planning to roll out a national broadband network at the same time it seems rather counter-intuitive to go ahead and strangle it with an infrastructure bottle-neck that makes said network almost null and void.
That being said I still stand by my position that the filter, at least in its current form, will not make its way into reality. The tech crowd is universally opposed to it and there’s increasing pressure from the giants of the Internet (Google, et al) to abandon such ideas. It seems now that even our good friends across the ocean are starting to have concerns that such a policy would be harmful not only to Australia and its citizens, but also to relations abroad:
Asked about the US view on the filter plan US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said: “The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues.
…In a speech in January US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put internet freedom at the heart of American foreign policy as part of what she called “21st century statecraft”. The US, she said, would be seeking to resist efforts by governments around the world to curb the free flow of information on the internet and encouraged US media organisations to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship”.
Clay’s statement added: “The US Government’s position on internet freedom issues is well known, expressed most recently in Secretary Clinton’s January 21st address. We are committed to advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally.”
Conroy’s first response was to say that hey hadn’t heard anything and failed to make any comment on what his opinion was on the matter. I don’t blame him for doing that either as up until recently he was only fighting the people of Australia and a few corporations. Now he’s got to deal with the US putting pressure on him to not go ahead with his proposal and he can’t openly attack them like he has done with Google leaving him with very few rhetorical options. I’m sure his spin doctors are working overtime on this one and I don’t envy the job they have (I mean really how to do brush off an attack from the US government?).
More importantly there’s also the small issue of an agreement that Australia and the US signed in about 6 years ago, the Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement. Back when it was first introduced there was hefty opposition to the proposal, mostly from Australia’s side, as it had the potential to wreck havok on things like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and forced Australia to make changes to its intellectual property laws. Despite all this the agreement passed and came into effect on the 1st of January 2005 and hasn’t really come up in political discussions since.
The FTA was much futher reaching than the issues that were brought up in during negotiations. Other areas it covered were financial services, environmental issues, investment and government procurement. More interestingly however there are 2 key areas that the FTA covers that are quite likely to be affected by the proposed Internet filter, and they are:
This section details agreed upon terms by both countries to assure fair trade between the telecommunications industries in each country. The rules specifically exclude measures relating to broadcast or cable distribution of radio or television programming.
Among other provisions, the agreement lays out rules for settling disputes among the members of the telecommunications industries in one country with the members in the other. It entitles enterprises to:
- seek timely review by a regulator or court to resolve disputes;
- seek review of disputes regarding appropriate terms, conditions, and rates for interconnection; and
- to obtain judicial review of a determination by a regulatory body.
The parties agreed to co-operate on mechanisms to facilitate electronic commerce, not to impose customs duties on digital products and for each to apply non-discriminatory treatment to the digital products of the other.
The first relates to how Australia and the US will provide communications infrastructure and services to each other in a fair and equitable way and provides a framework for settling disputes. The bolded point outlines an area where the FTA could be invoked if Australia decides to implement a filter. Whilst the debate is still open on just how much an Internet filter would harm Australia’s ability to do business on the Internet the greater tech community is of the mind that it will be detrimental, regardless of implementation. Whilst this doesn’t directly damage the FTA it could be used as an injunction to stop such a filter from becoming reality, at least for a short while.
Probably the more important part of the FTA that is directly affected by the implementation of the filter is the Electronic Commerce section which explicitly states that there be no discriminatory treatment to digital products. This can extend to information on subjects such as abortion, euthanasia or drug harm minimisation which under the current filter proposal would be outright banned, but are still perfectly legal within the US. There’s also the possibility, thanks to the lack of transparency of the filter and its blacklist, that an online retailer could end up blocked from people within Australia and be effectively barred from trading with us.
I’ll admit that the links to the FTA are a bit tenuous but there’s no doubt in my mind that businesses with an online presence in Australia will suffer under the proposed filter legislation. The FTA is just another bit of ammunition to argue against the filter and with the US now putting pressure on Conroy I’m sure that we’re not too far away from the FTA being mentioned at a higher level. Conroy really has his work cut out for him if he thinks he’ll be able to convince the US that the filter is a good idea.
Would the filter require the FTA to be amended? I doubt it, but then again I’m not particularly qualified to comment on that. If you know (or have a good opinion) let me know in the comments below.
Tip of the hat to David Cottrill for giving me the idea of mashing the FTA with the Internet filter.
Ever since my last post on the whole Google vs China situation I’ve steered clear of jumping into the fray again. That’s not for lack of material though especially when Google took the impressive step of shutting down its China servers and redirecting all google.cn traffic to their Hong Kong (which are politically and legally isolated from mainland China) servers which put the ball square back in China’s court. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the Chinese government retaliated and I expected that they would do much the same as they have done to other services that don’t follow their rules, I.E. block them outright. Especially when they accused them of being spies.
It seems however that the situation is a little bit more complicated than that:
The Chinese government has attempted to restrict access to the Hong Kong–based servers where Google is offering uncensored search results to mainland China users.
On Tuesday, according to The New York Times, mainland China users could not see uncensored Hong Kong–based content after the government either disabled certain searches or blocked links to results.
Citing business executives “close to industry officials,” The Times also reports that China Mobile – the country’s largest wireless carrier – is under pressure from the government to cancel a pact with Google that puts the web giant’s search engine on the carrier’s mobile home page. The carrier is expected to end the pact – though it doesn’t have an agreement in place with a new search provider.
The Chinese government isn’t stupid and they know that blocking Google outright would just fan the fire that’s swelling up against them. Instead they’ve curtailed the uncensored search engine as best they could to match how it worked previously, leaving the switch to the Hong Kong servers mostly transparent to the less tech savvy amongst its residents (who really wouldn’t have been bothered by the initial censoring anyway). What does come as a surprise is the reaction of the government towards Google’s other businesses which seems to be their way of strong-arming Google back into place.
Initially Google signed on to censor its results as it thought that at least having some presence in China was better than none at all. Whilst the shareholders were unanimously for the move (come on, who wouldn’t want their company to make more money?) they copped a beating from their critics who trotted out their corporate motto of “Don’t Be Evil” as a sticking point for bowing to the Chinese Government’s will. It was well founded as many felt capitulating implied some level of support for the government’s activities which, even at the best of times, been highly questionable to observers. Even more interesting is that the same critics also threw a bit of flak Google’s way for pulling out of China, as it provided them with vindication of their initial stance.
Google didn’t make this decision lightly. Ever since their initial scuffle and rebellion against the Chinese government Google’s shares have taken a whopping 6% hit since January. From a business perspective they would have to judge this (hopefully) short term damage to their stock price as less than what continuing business in China would have done to them, which is saying quite a lot. They’re far from shutting down all of their operations within China’s borders but pulling the plug on their biggest asset shows that they aren’t keen to play games with the Chinese government anymore, despite the damage it will do to its bottom line.
I made the prediction that should Google pull out of China many companies would begin to follow suit. At the time I was really only focused on Internet based companies, as they’re the ones who struggle the most within China’s borders. As it turns out I was right as the domain name giant GoDaddy is discontinuing its services to the region:
GoDaddy.com Inc., the world’s largest domain name registration company, told lawmakers Wednesday that it will cease registering Web sites in China in response to intrusive new government rules that require applicants to provide extensive personal data, including photographs of themselves.
The rules, the company believes, are an effort by China to increase monitoring and surveillance of Web site content and could put individuals who register their sites with the firm at risk. The company also believes the rules will have a “chilling effect” on new domain name registrations.
GoDaddy’s move follows Google’s announcement Monday that it will no longer censor search results on its site in China.
It’s not only pure Internet companies that are looking for solutions to the China problem, Dell has also begun looking to other less restrictive regions as well. So whilst there isn’t a mass exodus of all western based companies from China there is mounting pressure that such companies aren’t willing to deal with the government’s regulations in order to do business there. Honestly I wouldn’t of expected such moves from either company as Dell makes its money on the volumes it moves (provided in the most part by China) and GoDaddy isn’t renowned as a bastion of corporate morals, but they do have the freedom of not being controlled by share holders. Still if two large multi-national companies are willing to throw their weight behind Google you’ve got to wonder how long other companies will put up with China’s restrictive market.
Hopefully enough big names will jump on the Google bandwagon and we’ll begin to see China’s government rethink its restrictive stance. I’m not naive though and I know it will take a lot of pressure for the Chinese government to make any concessions for western companies looking to make a name for themselves on China’s shores. However what we’re seeing now are the opening chapters to a book that still has many pages to be written, and has a long time to go until it’s published to the wider world.
Some days you just wake up to good news:
R18+ video games are a step closer to being allowed in Australia following the resignation of South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson.
Mr Atkinson’s decision to leave the front bench means he will no longer be in a position to vote on changes to the country’s classification system, including the introduction of an R18+ rating for games.
The decision came after voters gave the Rann Government a kicking in last weekend’s state election. Mr Atkinson won his seat of Croydon comfortably but still suffered a 14.3 per cent swing against him, according to ABC reports.
Whilst a lot of gamers out there were hoping for an epic dethroning of Atkinson from his position by the Gamers 4 Croydon party who thrust themselves into the limelight on a single issue it was always far more likely that he’d walk away with a comfortable win. However you’d be forgiven for not expecting that Atkinson would step down after he was elected (I sure didn’t) but in retrospect its classic politics. Remember during the last federal election where there were rumours circulating that John Howard was planning to retire part way through his term if he was reelected. He had already lost the election thanks to his bungled Work Choices legislation but the notion that a vote for Howard was actually a vote for Costello didn’t win them any favours. Naturally if Atkinson had announced he would retire from the front bench before the election you can almost guarantee he wouldn’t of won his seat again, especially with the large swing against him regardless.
So with Atkinson out of the way and the next meeting of the attorney-generals in April it looks like we might see the introduction of a R18+ classification to Australia sometime in the near future. There’s still a lot of work to be done in this area (How can the games be displayed in retail stores? Will there be required ID checks? Etc.) however with none of the representatives agreeing with Atkinson’s stance it looks like a sure thing that the classification will be put through. Couple this with the fact that if Aktinson’s replacement does give R18+ the tick they’re almost guaranteed to be looked upon more favourably, to the tune of 3.7%.
That’s probably the biggest surprise of the election as Gamers 4 Croydon managed to grab a considerable percentage of the votes. Whilst they’re far from a single issue party their claim to fame was the push for a R18+ rating. Atkinson did his best to cut them off with crazed legislation like banning posters during the election campaign (the cheapest and one of the most effective ways for smaller parties to get noticed) but they still managed to make quite an impression on the people of South Australia. They’ve stated that they’ll be undergoing a transformation soon to ditch the direct association with gamers in their party name (as the issue will be pretty much settled in the coming months) but they will still carry on with the G4C tag. For all the work they’ve put into it I’m sure we’ll continue to hear from them for a long time to come and I hope they keep their progressive technological bent.
For what its worth I’m happy this thorn in my side will be disappearing soon. Whilst I was only marginally affected by the lack of a R18+ rating (Curse you Australian Left 4 Dead 2!) it was still something that needed to be rectified in order to make all entertainment mediums in Australia as equal as they should be. The next few months will see a flurry of activity to get this whole issue off the drawing board and into reality and it really couldn’t come any sooner.
After the initial media flurry that was triggered by Google pointing their finger squarely at the Chinese government in relation to illegal hacking into their various systems there really wasn’t that much follow up. There was a considerable amount of talk about what effect Google pulling out would have on China, from the obvious increase of market share of other search engines to Chinese researchers losing one of their most valuable tools. Additionally the IT world covered many of the technical aspects such as attack origins and the vectors used but after Google mentioned that it was going to restart talks with the Chinese everyone pretty much gave up on the issue. The ferocity which Google used to deliver the initial message seemed to have disappeared.
That was until recently when Google started to flex its muscles in another arena:
March 3 (Bloomberg) — The Obama administration is weighing the merits of taking China’s censorship of Google Inc. to the World Trade Organization as an unfair barrier to trade.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is reviewing legal arguments advanced by two groups with links to Google, spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said. The Computer & Communications Industry Association and the First Amendment Coalition say China’s restrictions on Web access and content discriminate against U.S. Internet companies and online commerce.
Going to the WTO is “well worth consideration,” Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel of Google, operator of the most popular Internet search site, told reporters after a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday. Using censorship “in a manner that favors domestic Internet companies goes against basic international trade principles,” Wong told lawmakers.
Now there’s two ways to look at this. The first is that Google is championing information freedom, a principal they’ve held for quite a long time. Their original move into China was a trade off they received a lot of criticism for since they were breaking their own rules by censoring the search results. However they believed that it was better for them to be in China in some way rather than not at all and with over 380 million Internet users you can understand why. I don’t doubt that this ideal is part of their strategy with China but it would be naive of me to say it was the main reason.
Far more likely is the fact that maintaining a censored search engine in China negatively impacts their bottom line. Despite the obvious infrastructure requirements (which for Google would be rather small) there’s also a limitation on how their core business can operate within the bounds of China. Certain advertisers can’t be shown (heaven forbid you have skeletons in anything) and this impacts on Google’s profitability within China’s bounds. Arguing on the bounds that the censorship restrictions on Internet companies is a barrier to trade takes some of the focus off Google whilst still allowing them to get the results that they want. Make no mistake though, the main motivation for Google here is money.
It’s interesting to see their progression from a media hailstorm to a more subtle flex of political muscle. I’m dubious on whether or not this will have any noticeable impact on Google’s operations in China but I have to give them credit for not giving up when their initial attempt of shaming China into relenting didn’t work. The results of these allegations will bring the much needed attention of people with the ability to do something about the Internet situation in China. Whether or not that will end up doing good though is a story that’s yet to be told.