Dumb decision by our new government over ‘Net filtering

Government of any color will never learn – they’re not interested enough in the Internet and its technology to really understand the futility of this at a technical level. Yesterday’s announcement verifying the Australian Federal Government will be mandatorily requiring ISPs to filter the nastiness from the ‘Net is plain and simple stupidity. Not only is it simply not achievable, it’s nanny stating at its worst and significantly limiting of free speech (something we don’t have a guaranteed right to in Australia AFAIK).

I had higher hopes for these people. I thought they were smart enough to realise this was unachievable and bad policy. It’s definitely not Government 2.0 as defined by William Eggers.

My question has several parts, similar to others’ questions. Specifically:

  • what is to be filtered? I’m all for eliminating child porn and unfettered violence against the defenceless, but consenting adults watching others having sex or engaging in Ultimate Fighting is fine by me (even if I’m not interested). Fringe opinion of all sorts may not be tasteful to me and others of a similar mind, but I absolutely reject that there should be protections against expression of that opinion.
  • who decides what is to be filtered and on what basis? The AFP? The ACMA? Some other classification body? Parliament? What are the criteria and where are they published? Is there publicly visible appeal mechanism?
  • how will the filter be implemented, at what cost and to whom? In Australia’s ISP market, the implementation cost is likely to be passed to the consumer and that’s not on. Our Internet costs are already too high.
  • why is the system opt-out rather than opt-in and what happens to the list of those that opt out? This strikes me as a risky approach where those that opt out could be branded as wanting access to inappropriate material rather than wanting open access for legitimate reasons. That is an unacceptable risk.

As a civil libertarian (I’m a member of both EFA and the EFF) who opposes censorship, I think decisions about appropriateness of content ought to be in the hands of the consumer, and not the government. I also believe we should be educating our children about the Internet and appropriate use of it. My 10 year old daughter uses an unfiltered feed at home, however as her parent I (and my wife) discuss with her the fact that there is inappropriate material on the ‘Net and that she needs to be aware of it. We don’t show it to her, but we do discuss it in age-relevant terms and the computer she uses is in a public part of the house. We actively parent rather than letting the PC be a babysitter.

I get why the government has taken this step. It’s good politics. It panders to the masses who don’t understand this is impossible. And it’s bad politics to be lecturing parents that use PCs as babysitters to take an interest in their kids and get involved as parents. That doesn’t get you elected (or reelected).

I’m annoyed and disappointed along with Duncan Riley (also at TechCrunch), Nick Hodge, Mike Seyfang, Gary Barber, Kathryn Greenhill, Jasmin Tragas, James Farmer and Michael Kordahi.

Oh, there’s a Facebook group protesting about the decision.

19 Replies to “Dumb decision by our new government over ‘Net filtering”

  1. You should do your research. A Clean Feed has been operating in UK and other European countries for a couple of years. So that blows your theory that it is unachieveable completely out of the water, doesn’t it?

  2. Steve, surely you must realise by now that politics is not about doing something, but being seen to be doing something. Sir Humphrey would’ve taught most people that long before they even became politically aware.

    We are fundamentally a conservative and ignorant society (with a fundamentally conservative PM). It’s easier for us to accept that government is doing something to protect us from those nasty men in trenchcoats who visit seedy cinemas and prey on children (and who may also be neighbours); than it is to actually do something ourselves.

    The gov’t may well totally understand the futility of it all – it’s the masses they are pandering to that will never get it, and it’s them who don’t want to. That’s why we’ll almost certainly end up with a big-note bill that is really muddy in the details, allowing our current status quo to continue.

  3. @Deborah, I’ll guarantee you that no matter what the UK and other European governments assert, their feed is a long way from what’s being touted as clean.

    I’m as keen as anyone to protect my daughter and everyone else’s kids from unpleasant and offensive material, but it’s a fact that without much effort, it’s laughably simple to find porn, violence and hate sites, even off a supposedly clean feed. I’ve spent long enough working in the IT industry and in IT security in a past life to know that clean isn’t.

    I think that as a parent, you’ve bought into the hope that you can rely on Big Brother to protect our kids. That’s just not the case. We need to be active parents (as I assume you are, having read your bio) that are honest with our kids; as I am with my 10 year old. She knows that there’s stuff on the ‘Net that she might encounter that’s less than savoury, but her use is initially mediated and then coached by me and her Mum.

    As a member of EFA and EFF walking the talk, I would never filter anything coming in to our house, but I would educate about it and discuss its appropriateness in a relevant frame of reference – porn is generally abusive or exploitative, hate is fringe and socially unacceptable, violence is plain wrong, etc.

  4. @Ben, I see our politics align once again. No disagreement here. Like you I am deeply disappointed by the disingenuousness of policies like these that purport to do something we as technologist know can’t realistically be achieved.

  5. @Deborah Clean Feed in the UK, etc, yes true.

    However we are talking a country with a different internet infrastructure and a deregulated pricing model than Australia.

    I can’t see the labor government in Australia wanting to deregulate the pricing can you. If anything labor governments are usually keen to regulate the pricing structure.

    No the cost of the Feed with the current wholesaled boardband is no cost effective and very slow within the existing telstra pricing model. A number of ISPs have already trailed this back when it become labor policy in August 2007.

    They have concluded that it is too slow to be unless they are given cheaper wholesale boardband. Which the Government may force Telstra to do.

    Deregulate and it can be done!

  6. Don’t they realise that censorship is seen as an error, and that will be routed around?

    Anyway: technically feasible or not, do we really want our country to dumb down the internet?

    To censor what ‘they’ deem as “unworthy”?

    Who are ‘they’ in ACMA?

    God forbid I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover on the internet! Oh the horror.

    Ooops, that’s right. It’s not 1958. It’s 2008.

    @Ben. Love your Sir Humphrey quote. However, it did seem strange that this “bad news” was dumped on 31-Dec

  7. Not really understanding the technical issues, I just think that this is another cop out for this generation of parents who seem to want the government to fix many of the problems in society. Your points about the responsibility of parents in managing the internet are no different to the many other things that we do to protect our kids.

    Very well put. I think it would be better if they concentrated on getting the infrastructure/pricing/deregulation of the Telstra monopoly sort of stuff fixed rather than touting this populist stuff.

  8. A challenger appears:


    Government’s new Internet protection proposal decried by the great unwashed: “Won’t somebody please think of the pornography?”

    There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the geekosphere regarding the Australian government’s proposed Internet protection measures. Indeed, it seems that the major error on government’s part was to release the news on New Year’s Eve, with the inner circle of the dorkerati stuck at home with too few of their World of Warcraft clanmates online to form a raiding party and nothing better to do than shoulder blogs and let launch with the sound bites…

  9. Hmmm, the government has been swayed by the politics of putting up censorship on the internet.

    OK, can we then get our trusty government and ACMA to stop the SPAM I get from Nigerian scammers living on the Gold Coast; offers to enlarge my crown jewels and keep them shiny and bigger than other jewels; Phishing attempts for all those offshore bank accounts on dodgy islands in the Pacific; get-rich-quick schemes co-promoted by members of border religious hill cults.


    But please don’t block lolcats.

  10. Stephen, as a former IT manager myself and having implemented content filtering systems in the workplace because ADULTS can’t be trusted to use unfiltered internet access appropriately, why should we expect children – especially teenagers – to use unfiltered access appropriately?

    And these were well informed adults who knew the workplace policies on internet access. So how can we expect children to follow the “policies” we teach them? We don’t actually, that’s why schools have content filtering in place.

    This should be an opt-out system because then those who choose to have full access are then responsible for internet access in their homes. But that’s not to assume that the feed will be totally clean nor foolproof and that I should not still have measures in place in my home. But it will be much cleaner, as I’m sure the UK feed is *cleaner* not clean.

    It’s about making it more difficult. When I was a teenager, getting hold of porn was very difficult because there were laws in place to make it difficult for me – like it being in plastic wrappers and not available to minors. The only porn I got to see before I was 18 was the very, very occasional mag nicked from some lax dad’s collection. But if I was a teen now on this unfiltered internet, I’d be having a field day – no matter what my parents taught me.

    Re your argument about the opt-out system where you say “This strikes me as a risky approach where those that opt out could be branded as wanting access to inappropriate material”, well, in an opt-in system, those who choose not to opt-in “could be branded as wanting access to inappropriate material.”

    And we don’t need an opt-in or opt-out system to find out who’s using the internet inappropriately. ISPs have access logs and they could easily set triggers for inappropriate sites if directed by a higher authority.

    Should libraries give people access to any and all printed material? Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler etc? And then it’s up to the parents only – not the library and librarians as well – to ensure children under 18 don’t read or borrow anything inappropriate?

    It’s not JUST the parents’ responsibility to help prevent children from accessing inappropriate material on the internet, it’s everyones. It those who run the sites, those who provide the access, those who govern us, our kids’ friends’ parents, our schools etc.

    I am yet to hear any valid and rational argument from those who oppose content filtering at ISP level. It’s all just paranoia.

  11. I know how hard it is to program the regular expressions to filter out “bad” words from form text input … and I also know it’s impossible to catch them all. Absolutely impossible. Just look at what people do to get spam past your email spam filter.

    And then we’re taking this to the next level and attempting Internet censorship; the only way I see that this could be guaranteed is by having someone sitting at the ISP’s HQ looking at every page their users are requesting and visually assessing the content and either allowing or denying … and that is not an economical or feasible option.

  12. Can someone help me? I remember reading something a while back about a 16 year old hacking through some version of a firewall in Australia. I can’t find that damn article anywhere.

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