Inside Story – how not to learn from #nymwars

A post over at Craig Thomler’s egovau has alerted me to the fact that Australian Policy Online through their Inside Story site, now requires real names in order to comment. The policy (placed at the end of each story) reads:

We welcome contributions about the issues covered in articles in Inside Story. Well-argued and clearly written comments are more likely to be published, and we’re now asking all contributors to provide their full name for publication. Because all comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately.

It appear that the folk at Inside Story, and their editor, Peter Browne, are taking a fairly robust stance on this matter; at least judging by the email trail Craig has published.

As the recent nymwars over Google’s insistence on real names for Google+ illustrates, insistence on real names is neither useful nor valid, and in fact excludes many for a number of reasons including a desire for anonymity and name structures that don’t meet a perceived level of validity. Either way, the nymwars experience is an object lesson in the harm and potentially chilling effect a real names policy imposes.

Like Craig, I’ve chosen to email the editors of Inside Story, pointing out the harm I think they’re doing. My email is below:

From: Stephen Collins

To: Peter Browne


I have been alerted to the fact that Inside Story requires real names in order to comment on articles on the site. I wish to express my very strong view that this policy is both misguided and potentially harmful.

Such a policy places at risk the openness of discourse on the site, in terms of it having a chilling effect on commentary by those who for whatever reason (risk of bullying, employment risk, a wish to otherwise protect their identity, etc.) wish to remain anonymous.

There are many options available to a site like Inside Story to ensure that commentary on the site is both validated and non-spam in nature. Demanding real names ought not be one of them.

The recent and well-documented furore over Google insisting on real names for Google+ registrations – what has become known as the “nymwars” – offers a powerful object lesson on the harmfulness of such policies, the public support for anonymous (but validatable) identity and the demonstrable need for such in online (and physical world) public discourse.

You have made an ill-judged decision in imposing this policy and I urge you to reverse this decision and allow anonymous comments on Inside Story.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins | +61 410 680722 | @trib

acidlabs | Conversation. Collaboration. Community. |

I cannot argue any more eloquently than researcher, danah boyd, who posits that real names policies are an abuse of power.

UPDATE (23-1-2012, 10:00AM): In a pleasing development, Peter Brown of Inside Story has responded to me noting that pseudonymous comments are an acceptable alternative to a real name when used on Inside Story. I’m not yet certain how this plays out in practice and in their comment moderation practices, but it’s a good acknowledgement of a viable alternative.

How we can win the #nocleanfeed argument

This afternoon, Jason Langenauer posted a well-argued piece with respect to the issues he sees in the national discussion we’re having over the imposition of the Labor government’s Internet filter. Initially, I thought it was a good piece. It’s clear, makes sense, sensible. But Jason is wrong on several points.

First, I should point out that this is my personal view, formed after lengthy discussion with well known anti-filter proponent, Mark Newton; someone whose view and ability to argue a point I respect a great deal. It’s not a view that represents my role as a board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, though it is a view I’m trying to influence that group with. Given EFA is a democracy, I may get voted down.

No Clean Feed
Image by trib via Flickr

The #nocleanfeed movement is killing itself. But it’s not confusion that’s doing it as Jason and others have said. Anyone with even passing familiarity with the campaign has no confusion whatsoever about what it means. None.

Asserting that we (the #nocleanfeed movement) have somehow dug ourselves an inescapable hole by using that term is false.

Sure, I wouldn’t use #nocleanfeed to try to explain it to someone unfamiliar with the arguments, but that’s Communications 101; you use the language and understandings of your audience to talk to them. You don’t confuse them and fail to engage with them by using your language.

On the other hand, as pointed out to me by Mark, using filter is probably a bad choice. Filters are good. They remove impurities so we can drink clean water and other such important things. At the very least we should use the term “filter” (air-quotes very intentional).

EFA have just launched the Open Internet campaign. As someone who participated in the discussions that brought it about, I strongly support it and the message it sends. But we’re using filter everywhere. Why not call a spade a bloody great bulldozer and use the term censorship? That’s what we’re talking about, after all.

So here’s my view.

We’re smart, and we have all the tools we need to make this a fait accompli. Yet we dance around, playing nice, wording statements carefully and not calling out fools strongly when we see them.

Over two years into this campaign and Senator Stephen Conroy has been utterly unable to successfully frame this issue the way he wants – as a battle against child pornography. Not only do even those casually familiar with the issue know that the filter will fail to stop child porn, but they also know that it’s the wrong fight altogether; child porn is distributed via methods that Internet censorship can’t ever handle, at least with current technology.

We know that the argument that being anti-censorship is ipso facto to be pro child porn is rubbish. Senator Conroy has been called on this often enough that he’s largely given up on it.

We all know that fighting child porn is far better fought by adequately funding the Australian Federal Police and their high-tech crime unit to do the job they know how to do very well. Give them more resources and they can likely do it better again. I’ve met some of them, they’re incredibly dedicated and they believe in what they do.

And this week, the mainstream media and the public got 100 per cent sucked in by the idiots at Anonymous and their ridiculous Project Titstorm. Anyone with half a brain will accept that this action was completely unacceptable. It stopped government delivering important services to the public and did the anti-censorship argument no favors whatsoever by risking re-framing the debate in anti-censorship = pro-porn terms. To that I say an unqualified NO WAY!

On Monday evening on the ABC’s Q&A, Melinda Tankard-Reist managed to unequivocally demonstrate that she had zero understanding of this issue when she sought to conflate Anon’s attacks with child porn. She looked less informed on the Internet and censorship issues than did Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce, who, in a moment of infrequent clarity noted that kiddie porn perpetrators ought to be locked up. Yes, Senator! Though this may be the one and only time I ever agree with you.

The #nocleanfeed movement, its meaning and its ability to creep (hopefully pretty quickly, it’s an election year after all) into the greater public consciousness couldn’t be in a better position. And here’s why.

Those who understand the argument are eloquent. Let’s help others understand by explaining to every person we know just what a damn fool idea the whole thing is and why. It’s not that hard. I’ve written about it enough, and others more eloquent than me have too. Use their words, and mine, to help you.

The government, overall, is in something of an unclear mess over a great deal of its Communications portfolio, not least because there’s at least one Senator, in Kate Lundy, whose public opposition to the Internet censorship policy must be having an effect by now.

Every time Senator Conroy speaks about the issue, he makes less sense and dances around more than last time. He is rapidly losing authority because he can’t argue cogently about the censorship policy. I suspect he just wishes it would go away, but he’s argued so long and hard for it, that he has no face saving way out.

And, should Anon ever decide to play with the big kids rather than confining themselves to the sandpit where they can fling mud pies, they have the potential to be a powerful force. They are certainly smart enough, if misguided. Any blacklist will get leaked almost weekly. The update frequency on Wikileaks (currently not publishing as they try to fund raise – maybe you could donate?) will go through the roof!

The only real problem we face in the #nocleanfeed argument is our good manners. When we’ve couched something badly, we take the beating. When we argue well, we let the opposing forces argue against us and take the beating. It leaves us without a strong position and no driving story. Nobody really knows what we stand for. As Mr Newtown eloquently pointed out to me, “[like the US] everyone knows exactly what the American right wing claims to stand for, but nobody knows jack about what the
lefties represent.” Same with the #nocleanfeed lobby and to a relatively significant extent, the EFA.

We need to switch our approach. Argue hard. Point out the fault in the opposition argument. In public. In strong terms. Cut their legs out from under them.

Jason thinks there’s no strong, consistent framework for couching #nocleanfeed arguments. He’s wrong. Here it is, and it’s so simple your Luddite family members can understand:

  • there’s no serious Internet content problem to solve – you just can’t inadvertently stumble on RC or child porn on the Internet
  • even if it was, nobody wants the government to solve it – if they did, free filtering software would be incredibly popular
  • even if they did, this solution won’t work – we’ve seen the trial results and the extensive analysis which points out the flaws
  • even if it did, it’s too expensive, unreliable, performance-sapping,
    – ouch, ouch, ouch and no way
  • even if it was perfect, it’ll be administered by governments ill-equipped to do so – we’ve seen several policy and program stumbles lately, do we want one over this?
  • even if it was administered perfectly, the blacklist will leak – and leak, and leak, and leak, giving infinite publicity to exactly the content the government wants to suppress (you’ve heard of the Streisand Effect, right?)
  • there is no possibility that the blacklist won’t leak – it already has and it will again

There’s your framework. Work those arguments. Expand them. Point out the risks of Nanny Stating. The disconnect between the government and the electorate.

Sounds like a strong movement with a great argument to present to me.

Hubris, Open Internet and Clean feeds

Parts of this post were originally a comment on Senator Kate Lundy’s blog post on the Clean Feed policy.

Today, Senator Kate Lundy, a politician I admire greatly and my local Senator, posted her views on the government’s Clean Feed policy. While hinting at her opposition to the policy, she very much toes the party line, which is to be expected given the control freak Prime Minister we have. I had hoped she would expressed a strongly dissenting view. Of course, I understand that is incredibly difficult for a politician to do, no matter how much her constituents might want it to be the case. Open dissent is unlikely to be allowed in Federal Labor.

It is in stark contrast to the laudable position taken by her Labor colleague, NSW State Parliamentarian, Penny Sharpe, over whom Federal Labor holds no sway.

I’ve written and spoken publicly a number of times on this issue in the past couple of years. It’s all available on this blog and clearly points out the various issues with the policy. I’m hardly the most eloquent on the matter, but there you go.

As for the history of the issue, here’s what I remember from 2007 before the release of the current policy:

  • the Labor opposition had a policy that required ISPs to offer a non-mandatory clean feed so that subscribers who wanted it could have it
  • this was to be supported by education programs and free filtering software

Imperfect, flawed, sure. But certainly workable.

At this point, the technically savvy voting public, especially those inclined to vote Labor, were pretty comfortable with the policy. The matter of ACMA’s blacklist was still contentious given the holes in the governance of it.

The release of the policy saw several people (including me) note there was ambiguity around for whom, where and when the “mandatory” applied. Was it mandatory to offer? Was it mandatory only where children were concerned? Or was it plain mandatory?

What has happened now, as Senator Conroy appears to have received increasingly bad advice from his Department and has become increasingly strident on the matter, equating opposition to the mandatory feed with being pro-pedophilia, is that the public understanding of the policy as campaigned upon no longer equates to the implementation.

The implementation being proposed has several flaws, not the least of which is the possible breach of the UNs Universal Declaration of Human Rights (we’ll see how that goes in the High Court, no doubt). All the other flaws have been raised, discussed, analysed and dissected at length, so I’ll not rehash them here.

Suffice it to say, this policy is not what the public voted for and is not what they want, either. The public outcry is more than adequate demonstration of that. You have to wonder what previously unencountered level of hubris Senator Conroy and the Prime Minister have access to that has them perpetuating this dangerously flawed policy.

Not the publicity you’re looking for – Stephen Conroy, the clean feed and TIME Magazine

With apologies to Obi-Wan Kenobi for the title…

Public awareness and momentum against the issue of the Federal Government’s proposed clean feed appears to be growing apace. Now we have the international news magazine, TIME, reporting on it in none too glowing terms:

Initially, the minister for communications, Stephen Conroy, denied that the list on Wikileaks and the ACMA blacklist are the same, a denial that rang a little hollow when one of its partners, the Internet Industry Association (IIA), publicly condemned the release and posting of the list. “No reasonable person could countenance the publication of links which promote access to child abuse images, irrespective of their motivation, which in this case appears to be political,” said IIA chief executive Peter Coroneos.

Against all the best advice, the government perpetuates the move to, at the very least, waste taxpayer dollars on proving the unworkableness of the clean feed.

It would be much smarter if the government simply admitted this wasn’t going to work in the way it’s being couched and returned to their previous, workable policy, of an opt-in filtered feed that could be requested by consumers should they wish it. Doing this would, in all likelihood, satisfy both sides of the argument – those whose view of the world has them worried about their kids seeing untoward material on the ‘net (soon they’ll realise how rare this actually is) and those of us who believe a mandatory, opt-out clean feed is an issue that threatens civil liberties in this country.

My friend and colleague, Laurel Papworth also shares her views on the Time piece.

The Great Firewall of Canberra

No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in AustraliaAs a resident of our national capital, the references in the media to “Canberra” as an analogy for the Federal Government sometimes bug me, as they must equally bother the residents of places like Washington DC and other seats of government. But that’s a minor issue in comparison to the serious issue facing Australians with the proposal to impose mandatory filters on Internet traffic.

Personally, I’m a libertarian. So long as you’re not hurting anyone, I see no reason for government to get involved in stopping you from doing anything. Provided it’s legal. Using the Internet in this country is legal, or it was the last time I checked. The imposition of the proposed mandatory clean feed, and the opt-out only (thus potentially tarring the opter-out with an undeserved brush) approach is nanny stating at it’s very worst.

At best the proposal suffers from the well-documented flaws in execution that could slow Australia’s already slow Internet speeds to a crawl. At worst, it’s censorship on a scale with the most oppressive regimes in the world. Electronic Frontiers Australia would appear to agree – the discussion on their blog is running hot on the topic.

If, like me, you feel this proposal is ill-considered, bad public policy, I encourage you to do something about it. At the very least, write a letter to your local MP. For more ideas, take a look at No Clean Feed.

And for those not sure, educate yourself! There is already a great deal of public material worth reading:

And here’s the thing. One of the core arguments in the government’s position is protecting our children. Sorry, but that’s my job as a parent.

My daughter has been using the Internet since she could sit at a computer and she’s about to turn 11. She’s had a personal, unfiltered, unchecked by me email address since she was five and she has admin rights on the computer she uses. We have well defined, well understood rules for her Internet use. The computer is in an open part of the house. In all her time using the Internet she has never witnessed anything untoward, been spammed, stalked or otherwise bothered.

I’m thinking she and other kids don’t so much need protection as we as adults need not to abrogate our parenting responsibilities and learn about and understand the Internet. Particularly in the context of our children’s use of it.

If you need some help, ask me. I’ll give you a hand.

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.

Fast anonymous surfing

Relakks looks like an awesome idea. For EUR5/month or EUR50/year, completely anonymous surfing via VPN. Check it out if you’re finding TOR too difficult!

They say “Relakks provides services to help individuals to assure the security and integrity of their information. Relakks’ responsibility stems from the strong Swedish tradition of protecting the integrity of private life and all forms of communication between individuals.”