Will Linux be banned down under?

The source code's four-letter words could run afoul of new Australian censorship legislation.

Topics: Linux,

Did the drafters of Australia’s new Net censorship legislation ever imagine that
their rules might ban Linux? After all, the Linux source code has quite a
few instances of the word “fuck” sprinkled throughout, mostly as commentary
about problems with software. Can an operating system be considered unsuitable for minors?

Using grep — the powerful Unix search command — to go through a recent version of Linux, I came up with some comment lines and error messages
that were clearly intended as the sort of coarse humor engineers of all sorts engage in.

Some examples:

  ./drivers/block/cmd640.c:16: *  These chips are basically fucked by design ./fs/ufs/ufs_super.c:184:     printk("ufs_read_super: fucking Sun blows me\n"); ./lib/vsprintf.c:9: * Wirzenius wrote this portably, Torvalds fucked it up :-)  

The last is particularly amusing — “Torvalds” is, of course, Linus Torvalds, the Finnish computer scientist who started Linux in the first place.

The problem is, while adult engineers might find commentary such as this humorous, the sort of people who want to censor the Internet are more
likely to find it offensive. Which leads us back to the simple question: How will the Linux source code fare if the the Australian censorship law
passes?


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Second-hand commentary on Australia’s Net censorship law abounds, but I decided to go straight to the source. Like most laws, it makes for stultifying reading, but in essence the measure
says that the government can prohibit Australian Web servers from hosting X-rated material. R-rated material would be prohibited if it’s not
behind a guard page or adult check of some sort.
I figured, therefore, Linux source code would have to be shielded from young eyes, lest they get the impression that “fuck” is a valid engineering term. But then I realized something: This assumes that an R rating in Australia means pretty much the same thing that it means in the United States.



I decided to check with the law. It says that material that doesn’t already have an Australian rating — that is, anything other than an
already-rated movie or computer game — will be rated as if it were a film. The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 is the source for the current Australian
ratings code, so off I go to read through it.

As in the United States, X ratings are for good old-fashioned smut, but in Australia there is also RC (for Restricted Content), which makes it illegal to depict sex, violence or “other abhorrent
phenomenon in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.” There’s also an MA rating, which is for films dealing with “sex, violence or coarse language in such a manner as to be unsuitable for viewing by
persons under 15,” and an R rating, for material that is simply “unsuitable for viewing by minors.”

While this more or less answers my question about restricting Linux — which will probably be the first operating system to be rated MA for
coarse language — it raises a larger, darker question. What is the R rating for, and how will it be applied online?

A filtering system supported by the backers of the Australian law
may give us some clues. Among the words the software blocks are the terms “anarchy,” “gothic,” “pierced” and “tattoo,” along with the usual run of sexual terms and names such as Pamela. So, it seems that what is “unsuitable for a minor to see” may well be anything unusual or outside of
the mainstream — possibly including, but far from limited to, Linux.

Jamais Cascio is a scenarist and writer working in Los Angeles, where he's still waiting to be discovered.

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