Do these people have no idea? – the folly of the Internet Filter

This afternoon, Senator Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy made the announcement so many of us had been dreading – that the Federal government would be going ahead with its plans to filter Australian Internet access and unnecessarily protect us from nasties we neither want nor need to be protected from.

It represents imposition of Nanny State government of the worst sort. Arguably, it places us alongside extreme and totalitarian states such as Iran, China and North Korea in the level of control placed upon Australians’ Internet access.

It would appear that vested interests, dominated by appeasement of fringe Senators such as Steve Fielding and their constituencies in the moral and religious right have wielded their increasing power and brought about the policy position they have been pushing for, as on first reading, the report doesn’t provide compelling enough numbers to justify moving forward and, as we’ve seen many times in the media, community support for this policy is not widespread.

The reaction on Twitter, a place that politicians are now listening to, is singularly passionate. As I write, WhatTheHashtag has recorded in excess of 6000 tweets in just a few hours and the tag is the #4 trending topic overall. It’ll be swamped when the Americans wake, unless we all tell our American friends who can then laugh at the stupidity of the entire exercise.

This issue is the #1 reason I stood for and am now on the Board of Electronic Frontiers Australia. I am passionately against the foolish policy position that this represents and am keen to hear from any reader who wishes to email me or comment here. I’ll make sure your views are taken to Parliament House in Canberra and given to the right people.

There are any number or already well-discussed reasons why this plan is folly – expense, ease of circumvention, lack of widespread public support, lack of transparency and adequate governance in the blocking process. There are any number of far less controversial measures the government could undertake that would satisfy both sides of the argument on ‘Net filtering. Let’s start with opt-in filtering for both homes and ISP’s as noted by Internode tech and outspoken anti-filter campaigner Mark Newton. There’d be little outcry if this was the policy executed. People could choose to filter on their PCs at home, or if that was too challenging, choose to use an ISP that offered a filtered feed. Everyone ends up happy as those who don’t want filtering get to have unfiltered connections too.

The arguments that are pro the filter are incredibly spurious and usually couched in “it’s for the children” terms. We’re supposedly going to protect them from ‘Net nasties and the burgeoning ranks of pedophiles waiting to pounce on them online.

Bollocks.

My 12 year old daughter uses a completely unfiltered Internet connection. She also has root access to the network at home and to the computer she uses. Yet she’s never encountered any of the problems Senator Conroy and the likes of Senator Fielding seem to believe are rampant – no nasties, viruses, stalkers or any other undesirable in several years of using the Internet unfiltered and mostly unsupervised. And you know why? Good rules and decent parenting (well, certainly the first and hopefully the second).

Yes, there are risks to being online, They’re remarkably similar to the risks you face in meatspace. Here’s a handy list of things to try to effectively protect your kids online in case you’re confused at this point:

  1. Make sure the computer your kids use is in a public, well-trafficked part of the house
  2. Educate yourself as a parent so that you have as much knowledge or more than your kids about the risks of being online
  3. Establish reasonable expectations for their Internet use in terms of time online, acceptable standards of behavior in terms of online activity and what the real risks are (they’re much smaller in my view than the government, Federal Police and parts of the media would have you believe)
  4. Teach them strategies to deal with undesirable content encountered online
  5. Live up to the expectations you set for your kids in terms of your own Internet use
  6. Impose penalties for breaches of the rules you set and stick to them

It’s my desperate hope that this foolish policy and the legislation necessary to make it happen are defeated in Caucus. If not, it’ll be one of the few times I’ll support a vote the Liberals take in the Senate when they vote against it.

Others have written their own thoughts over this important matter:

  • Téa Brennan, who makes an impassioned pleas for sense and proper parenting
  • Craig Wilson, who speculates the intelligent folk of the Australian blogosphere might just bring the government down
  • Crikey’s Possum Comitatus, who examines the possible electoral fallout
  • Will Briggs, a pastor in Tasmania whose faith-based views contrast strongly with others such as Senator Fielding
  • Gary Sauer-Thompson, on his well-regarded blog, Public Opinion
  • Jeff Waugh, well known Open Source and Software Freedom proponent
  • technology educator, Dean Groom
  • Chris Chesher from the Digital Cultures program at University of Sydney

If you’d like to do something effective, email and write (on paper) to your member and Senators and let them know how unhappy you are about this decision. If you’d like some guidance, EFA’s No Clean Feed campaign is a good place to start. You should also take a look at EFA’s response to today’s announcement.

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19 Replies to “Do these people have no idea? – the folly of the Internet Filter”

  1. It’s nuts Steve. As parents we have traditionally educated our kids about brown paper bag porn, exploitation of people and how to make educated choices. When the government wants to control our choices of how we as parents deal with some aspects of the scary modern world it has gone too far.

    It is patronising and ridiculous. I can raise my kind and loving kids without the interference if the Nanny State too.

  2. I’m not going to repeat yet again why this is such folly, you’ve spelt it out clearly and there are others far more qualified on this subject than I am but anyone with a moments consideration can see how useless this is, as I’m sure the politicians can.

    So my question is, if Everyone knows that it’s not going to work.

    What’s the real agenda?
    What’s the government really after that they are prepared to use this useless law as a means to leaver towards?
    Is this just the start of a larger, longer term, censorship plan to restrict other aspects of our freedoms that if introduced now would create an uproar, so they start with the kiddy fiddlers as an easy target?

    1. Ian, I suspect it’s a combination of pandering to extremist Senators, influencers within the increasingly moralist influenced Labor Party, and deeply conservative social values in the Ministry.

      None of which bodes well for a government that is ostensibly Left-leaning and socially small-l liberal.

  3. An obvious solution is for ISPs to have two feeds. The default when you sign up is the filtered one and there is an opt out unfiltered feed. Not to allow you to view beastiality or kiddy porn, but to ensure the public are
    able to be the filter watch dog. This therefore would protect the majority of kiddies, as those who know nothing would simply choose the default. And those who are tech savvy would choose the opt out but are savvy enough to protect their own kids. More importantly, we would not be betraying democratic ideals.

  4. Yeah, but opt in has been suggested and rejected. Opt out still gives us (tech savvy people anyway) our democratic right and adds a layer of transparency. As you no doubt know, the default would be chosen by the majority and would probably serve the intended purposes of filtering – to protect the people who probably shouldn’t be allowed to opperate a computer ;). But with enough of a minority opting out, we could ensure the government is not using a filter for underhanded purposes.

  5. Thanks for a great recap Stephen, I’ve linked to your article from my FB profile: it’s all our relatively non-tech friends & family who need to understand the nocleanfeed position. I’ve had people say to me “but what’s wrong with keeping our kids away from the porn & pedo sites?” Many parents our age have only come to use the net in the last few years and don’t understand how best to ensure safe use for their kids. Like you, my young kids have always used our computer with no filtering & relatively unsupervised. I’ll be pointing friends to your list for parents in future.

  6. Are people actually inadvertently being exposed to RC content? If so, is it through casual browsing or because of malware? Casual browsing can be solved by software running on PCs and/or routers at the customers premises or by subscribing to an opt-in ISP based filter service. No ISP filter, mandatory or not, will provide up-to-date protection against malware based attacks. Nor will it stop people who intend to access, create or distribute RC rated content.

    Malware based attacks can only be defeated through user education. Users must be able protect themselves against malware, spot the signs of an infection and know how to go about cleaning their system. A mandatory Internet filter achieves nothing in this space.

    It’s been proven that the proposed filters are easily circumvented. Will this be considered a crime, and therefore descriptions of steps to circumvent the filter fall under the scope of the filter? The cat and mouse game this situation starts will have disastrous results as Internet users in Australia are censored to protect the filtering system.

    What is the scope of “detailed instruction of crime”? Is a ‘Full Disclosure’ computer security advisory considered “detailed instruction of crime”? After all, they detail instructions on how to exploit security holes in software which can be used to break laws described in The Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995, Part 10.7 – Computer Offences[0]. The subject of ‘Full Disclosure’ in computer security is controversial but supported by numerous computer security experts as the best way to inform the community of areas which need attention. Blocking access to ‘Full Disclosure’ advisories will make Australians more vulnerable to attacks.

    [0]: http://www.ahtcc.gov.au/tech_crimes_types/

  7. It’s quite clear now why there is the rush to build a high-speed broadband network.
    Nothing to do with providing `world-class’ ISP access to Australians; more to be able to cope with the speed/bandwidth payload involved in filtering everyone’s traffic.
    What we don’t know of course is whether this is already going on behind the scenes in some respect, under the mantle of anti-terrorism measures, with this legislation just retrospectively tidying up a potential legal mess for the Government.

  8. I agree 100% that Conroy’s filter proposal is a crock.
    But I don’t think the debate is about kids’ accidental exposure to RC material.
    Instead, I think the debate is about the ongoing escalation in availability of RC material and what it does to people.
    I have an acquaintance who works in law enforcement. He has sketched out case histories of child sex offenders and, long story short, curiosity leads some people to seek out RC material. Exposure to it creates demand for it, which means more offenses. Exposure also increases the likelihood of offending.
    When the doing starts, people get hurt.
    Conroy’s filter is a joke because it does nothing to lessen the chances that people will get hurt.
    So I agree 100% that parental responsibility is needed, to ensure that our kids don’t encounter this vile stuff and understand when they are being contacted by persons possibly under its influence and what to do about it.
    But beyond that, I feel there are good reasons our society suppresses hate speech and certain depictions of violence. Now we have tools that allow the wide dissemination of this material, surely we should develop a societal response to the dangers it represents?

    1. Simon, you’re right about RC material (provided the definition can be controlled, and it’s not at the moment).

      The issue for folk like me is manifold, but predominantly that this sort of material isn’t available easily on the web. You can’t just Google it and get a lot of results,. Rather, you get still offensive but not RC material. So, on Google for example, you need to deliberately turn off SafeSearch to see the bad stuff. Which is still not the very bad stuff which is not circulated via the web.

      I’d also argue that the fear about the extent of this material and the types that are placing our kids at risk is a rather lower than the media (and occasionally the AFP) would like us to believe.

  9. Stephen,
    I agree that HTTP filtering is a pointless stunt and that there may well be a lot of FUD out there about the prevalence of RC material.
    The way RC material is classified is also a failure and this is why the Conroy plan is a tragedy.
    The utter dudness of the Conroy plan also shows me that government won’t get this right and cannot frame a decent response.
    If the community wants to be rid of RC material, we need to take it upon ourselves to do so. Elsewhere, I have argued that the “geek” community may be uniquely skilled to do so.

  10. I wonder if we are buying into the reasoning presented by the government. In that they say it’s to protect us. The reality though, I suspect is they are trying to cheaply stop criminal activity. Which is hilarious as it’s these types who will have no problem circumventing the filter.

    It’s a classic government procedure. Make a big issue someone elses problem ie ISPs now will be responsible for tracking people bypassing the filter which of course will be a federal crime.

    It is a sad state of affairs that we can’t , as a nation, be trusted.

    I truly hope that someone sees some sense and realises what an Epic Fail it will be.

  11. The government is presumably counting on the subservience complacency and compliance of the population. Perhaps further down the line an opt-out will be offered at a cost to the public, as an appeasement, and another money-grab. This is similar to how most folk currently have to pay to opt out of the Telstra marketing machine aka the phone book.

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