Danny Yee >> Free Speech >> Analysis of 1999 Legislation

Classification and "Collateral Damage"


Discussion of problems with the Internet censorship Bill has focused on the technical issues with blocking and the economic burden on ISPs. This analysis looks at problems with the classification system created by the legislation, and in particular the choice it creates between massive collateral damage and an impossible classification task.

Rather than an abstract analysis, it contains a case study of how the proposed system might work on an actual web site.

Warning: this document contains discussion of themes which some may find disturbing, as well as links to content which may be illegal in some states of Australia.

Note: numbers in bold, such as [1], are references to sections of the legislation. For more information about this, see the EFA info page.


The site chosen for examination is http://assm.asstr.org/erotica/assm/, which contains the monthly archives of postings to the Usenet newsgroup alt.sex.stories.moderated.

Note that this is only a portion of a larger site http://assm.asstr.org/erotica/, which in turn is hosted on a server assm.asstr.org which may contain any number of other sites.

To understand the effects of the legislation on this site, or rather the actions various Australians will be allowed or obliged to take in regard to it, we must first ascertain whether the site is located in Australia or not. The .to domain ostensibly indicates a Tongan site, but traceroute suggests that the server is co-located with above.net, which is a United States company. The balance of probablity is, at any rate, that the hardware serving these web pages is not physically within Australia. (The pages on the site will, of course, have passed through routers physically located in Australia on their way to Australian users, and probably through a cache or two.)

The next question is, could any of the material on this site be X-rated or RC-rated? alt.sex.stories.moderated is a non-binary group and the site appears to be text-only. Since nothing on this site consists of "the entire unmodified contents of a film" or "a computer game" [10], it will be classified (by the Classification Board) "in a corresponding way to the way in which a film would be classified under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995" [11].

In the OFLC's "Cinema and Video Ratings Guide" we find the following:

R 18+

Material considered likely to harmful to those under 18 years and/or possibly offensive to some sections of the adult community warrants an R classification.

Language: There are virtually no restrictions on language on R films.

Sex: sexual intercourse or other sexual activity may be realistically implied or simulated.

Violence: highly realistic and explicit depictions of violence may be shown, but not if unduly detailed, relished or cruel. Depictions of sexual violence are acceptable only to the extent that they are necessary to the narrative and not exploitative.

Other: drug use may depicted, but not in an advocatory manner. Extreme horror special effects usually warrant an R.

X 18+

No depiction of sexual violence, co-ercion or non-consent of any kind is permitted in this classification. Material which can be accomodated in this classification includes explicit depictions of sexual acts between consenting adults and mild non-violent fetishes.


Any film or video which includes any of the following will be refused classification:

  1. depictions of child sexual abuse, bestiality, sexual acts accompanied by offensive fetishes, or exploitative incest fantasies;
  2. unduly detailed and/or relished acts of extreme violence or cruelty; explicit or unjustifiable depictions of sexual violence against non-consenting persons;
  3. detailed instruction or encouragement in:
    1. matters of crime or violence
    2. the abuse of proscribed drugs

There are no precedents for the application of the film classification guidelines to written material. But "depiction" can include written descriptions.

Let us keep an open mind on this issue and proceed to look at some of the actual content on this site. Let us read some erotic fiction.

The Stories

What do we find on this site?

The Light

Some of the material here is quite tame. Searching for stories labelled "rom" (for romantic), and avoiding the more disturbing labels (about which more later), we find such things as:

  • (29k) {ASSM} My Reward Ch27 (MC, no sex, young love, rom, baseball)
  • http://assm.asstr.org/Year1999/20323.txt [DEAD]
    "Daydream Believer"

  • http://assm.asstr.org/Year99/20480.txt [DEAD]
    This is a brief but lyrical story "Moments", by someone called Neos Fyllo. I was rather taken by this, so I'm going to inflict a considerable chunk of it on you, as representative of the kind of content likely to be the subject of "collateral damage".
    (C) Neos Fyllo - all rights reserved.
    Reposted due to being awarded three tens by Celeste. 
    It was the shoe that first caught my attention. I was sitting 
    in the waiting room of the railway station, reading a book. 
    Something kept flicking in and out of the periphery of my 
    I could stand it no longer. I turned to look at the shoe 
    bobbing up and down. It was casually hanging off the 
    stockinged foot of a woman seated three chairs away from me. 
    My eyes surreptitiously roved up the black stocking to her 
    calf where I lingered a moment then continued on up to the 
    thigh, where my view of the crossed leg was abruptly 
    terminated by the hem of a dark pinstriped skirt. Moving on up 
    her body I eventually came to rest on the woman's face, only 
    to be disconcerted by the smile of recognition at my not so 
    surreptitious staring. I looked away flustered and 
    But it was the smile that did it.
    -- * --
    We walked out of the theatre hand in hand. I was feeling, 
    well, high I guess. The performances had all been fine, even 
    the play was pretty good. But my date, now she was something 
    special. We'd laughed at all the same moments and had held 
    hands without embarrassment or prompting. She even listened 
    kindly to my half-baked critique at the end.
    She was special all right.
    -- * --
    I was the nervous one. My parents were meeting Emily for the 
    first time, but it was me that was flapping about, worrying 
    needlessly over the meal we were cooking together. She was 
    serene and supportive, assured and confident. As I stood there 
    in the kitchen, flour down my front and a silly nervous smile 
    on my face, I looked at her and I knew. I also knew that she'd 
    bowl my parents over.
    She did, of course.
    --* --
    The drive to the coast was a warm, dreamy experience, like 
    nothing I'd ever experienced before. The ring on my finger 
    still felt foreign to me. I set the cruise control and put my 
    arm around my wife as best I could. My wife. It still seemed 
    like I was in someone else's dream.
    The honeymoon suite in the small hotel was cosy, warm, 
    inviting and just right. I sat on the edge of the bed and 
    watched her step seductively into the room, framed in the 
    doorway of the bathroom. The soft light shone through her 
    translucent night-gown illuminating her feminine curves. I 
    almost choked with mixture of lust and joy. That first time 
    she showed not the slightest nervousness or hesitation. My 
    feelings of fulfilment and pleasure had never been so 
    complete. I knew at that moment I would do anything for this 
    woman, absolutely anything.
    Whatever it took.
    -- * --
    We waited expectantly by her bed all night long. In the early 
    hours we were rewarded by the sight of the first puppy. I 
    carefully lifted up the little scrap of life and placed it 
    next to it's mother's stomach. Lady licked it vigorously till 
    it mewled then she picked it up by the scruff and dropped it 
    next to a waiting nipple.
    I sat transfixed by this display of nature at it's most 
    maternal. I looked up at Emily and smiled a dopey smile of a 
    happy father by proxy. A moment of insight passed between us 
    and she nodded an affirmative to my unspoken question.
    It was settled, we were to be a family.
    -- * --
    -- * --
    Maria bought her new baby home to show us. Maria's husband, 
    Stephen, was anxious about Emily holding little Alice but 
    Maria shoo'd him away. The same sense of calm and confidence 
    had now settled on Maria. Emily had worked her magic in some 
    mystical way that I would never understand, but would always 
    appreciate more than I could say.
    Being a grandparent was a thrill that I'd never thought 
    possible. Looking at little Alice in Emily's arms made me 
    think of what might have been, but the thought was fleeting. I 
    knew I couldn't complain, I had been more than privileged with 
    what I'd had in my life. Simply being with Emily was enough.
    More than enough.
    -- * --
    I looked up startled, feeling uncomfortable. I had been lost 
    in thoughts and memories, looking back over a lifetime's 
    moments again. Fragments that mirrored several decades of joy 
    and sorrow. The coffin slid through the door as the organ 
    music started its sombre tones. I looked around at my fellow 
    mourners. Funerals were never the happiest places.
    I reached over and clasped Emily's hand. Her skin was delicate 
    and almost translucent now. Her hand felt so small in mine.
    "I guess it will soon be our turn, my love."
    "Speak for yourself," she said, and gave me one of those 
    smiles that first attracted me.
    The thought occurred to me, not for the first time, that I had 
    been one of life's lottery winners. Quite why I had been so 
    privileged to have shared my life with this woman was still a 
    mystery to me, but I knew it was the best thing that could 
    ever have possibly happened.
    Life is, was and always would be, wonderful with Emily.
    The End

There are also a number of reviews of stories by Celeste, an English teacher who reviews online erotica on the side. For example: http://assm.asstr.org/erotica/assm/Year1999/20435.txt [DEAD]

You can find stronger stuff in the shelves of romance novels in op-shops, for 20c a volume. Even under the Film guidelines, it is unlikely that this would be R-rated, let alone X-rated.


Not everything is this lyrical or literary. The vast majority of stories on the site are what one might call "mainstream erotica": they contain explicit descriptions of sex, in all kinds of combinations and modes - "mf", "Mfff", "mm", "tg", "anal", "oral", "sm", "bd", etc. Film versions of most of this would be X-rated, though some of it might be RC-rated now that "unacceptable fetishes" have been removed from the old X category to create the NVE category.

Similar descriptions of explicit sex occur in many novels, including widely read bestsellers. Just glancing at my own shelves, I can see dozens of examples - for example Jean M. Auel's The Valley of the Horses, a volume in the bestselling Earth's Children cycle, and Henry Treece's The Golden Strangers. Online versions of these two works might get away with an R-rating, but others would be prohibited under the new legislation.

The Heavy Stuff

If we look at some of the other tags used, we find "nc" (for non-consensual), "tort" (for torture), "ped" (for pedophile), "rape" (for rape), "inc" (for incest) and so forth. And some of the stories manage classification with several of these tags...

I don't want to risk breaching the law in this essay, or to offend anyone, so I will refrain from quoting any of these stories. But here are just a few of the entries from the March 1999 index:

  • (11k) NEW The Director's Cut (nc, torture, snuff)
  • (24k) {Dastardly Dodo} "The incest-club part3" (Mm/f Ffff con inc ped anal)
  • (7k) Dan and Daisy 2/? M/f n/c, rape, torture
  • (13k) TYGER: {Blackwind} "The Beer Party" (M+f ped nc rape) AIM=343

Similar material to this appears in the works of the Marquis de Sade, in Unrestricted books available in ordinary bookshops. On the other hand, under the legislation this material has to be evaluated under the Film and Video classification code, not the Publications code used for books. It seems like that much of this material would be RC. (It also seems likely that online copies of Justine or Philosophy in the Boudoir would also be prohibited under this legislation, even though they can be sold in bookshops with no controls at all.)

So what is the ABA going to do about this site?

No problem, I hear you say. They'll turn it over to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, who are the experts at this sort of thing, and the OFLC can "sort the wheat from the chaff", as it were.

It's not so simple. There are 680 entries in the March 1999 index alone. The site covers 28 months, so, allowing for a bit of repetition <-- (which you have cleverly catered for in [43]) --> and the fact that many stories are posted in installments, there may be as many as 10000 unique stories on this site, containing perhaps 100 megabytes of text.

I'm not up to date with the current OFLC charging scheme, but at $4000 for a film/video classification decision, it will cost some forty million dollars to have this one site classified, if it were done story by story. That doesn't seem very practical to me, especially with several hundred new stories being added to the site every month. The government has only budgeted 1.5 million dollars per annum for classification costs resulting from implementation of this Bill.

Perhaps the ABA will have the OFLC classify the site as a whole. That will undoubtedly result in the entire site being prohibited (a single RC item or scene can get a publication or film banned), resulting in the kind of 'collateral damage' I mentioned earlier.

Perhaps the ABA can just pass the job on to the ISPs, telling them that there is some prohibited material on the site and that they have to block access to it. This will, of course, result in them blocking the entire site, since they are not trained censors, know little about the classification system, and won't want to risk huge fines.

So it is likely that this legislation will result in adult Australians being prevented from reading large amounts of material which is perfectly legal under any criteria.

Each of the stories on this site is a unique creation of an individual author, so it is hard to justify treating the site as a single item. The stories are also quite effectively decoupled - it is possible to link directly to individual ones from other web pages, for example - and the tagging is quite effective in helping one avoid unwanted kinds of material.

Perhaps some people will consider this site is acceptable "collateral damage". But consider http://www.dejanews.com/ [NOW Google Groups], which archives all the text messages posted to Usenet (and hence contains all the stories at http://assm.asstr.org/erotica/assm/, a fortiori). In 1998 the Dejanews CEO reported:

"We have more than 300 gigabytes of data, representing 250 million messages dating back to March 1995. Over 4 million people access our site, viewing over 90 million page views each month."
Will the ABA/OFLC rule that all of this is prohibited content or that none of it is prohibited content? Or will they attempt to classify 250 million messages individually?

Dejanews is a undoubtedly a valuable resource: it is referenced in academic papers and widely used as a research tool, as demonstrated in the Censorware Project's report.

There are many other sites which pose similar problems. Consider for example Go Ask Alice (http://www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/index.html), a sexual health information site at the University of Columbia.


Application of the Publications classification scheme to Internet content would be unworkable. Application of the Film and Video guidelines is just ludicrous.

The cliches about there being too much content online for censorship to work can't just be ignored. Whatever happens, only a tiny fraction of "prohibited" content can be blocked, making a mockery of claims that this legislation will protect children. To succeed in blocking even a few percent of "prohibited" content means that

  1. the ABA will have to hand over all of its budget and then some to the OFLC to pay for classification costs; and
  2. there will be massive overblocking, enormous amounts of "collateral damage" to perfectly unobjectionable content.

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