Lame parrots try to defend Internet censorship

[Update 21 December: If you've just found this post through recent links just before Christmas 2008, you might also want to check out some of the later material which I list at the end of the article.]

Scan of letter from Anthony Albanese MP

Anthony Albanese, my federal MP, replied to my letter about Internet censorship. It’s nothing but platitudes and a regurgitation of Labor’s policy-speak.

Network engineer Mark Newton met with his local MP Kate Ellis in Adelaide yesterday. She too had nothing but canned responses.

This is not good enough.

The same goes for “pro-family” lobbyists like the Australian Family Association’s Anh Nguyen in Online filtering recognises families’ concerns today, or the people quoted in the Courier Mail‘s Web filter ‘needed’ to protect kids from porn on Friday.

Detailed, coherent critiques have been put forward addressing the technical, economic and policy flaws in clear, straightforward language. If you can’t counter those arguments with evidence and logic, not more “think of the children” hand-wringing, then we must stop wasting time and taxpayers’ money on this “filtering” folly. Now.

I can almost excuse family lobbyists for failing to understand. If you’re deeply concerned about children emotionally, then logical analysis probably isn’t your strongest suit. If you’re so ignorant of the Internet that you imagine “hardcore pornography” (whatever that is) suddenly pops up to freak out your six-year-old every time you turn your back to stir the soup, then you might also imagine some magical technology which can automatically figure out what you do and don’t want your child to see.

But “all our members have families, and they think X” is not the same as “all people with families think X“. Every family is different. Every child is different. And there are plenty of families who don’t want this so-called “filtering”. And don’t bring religion into it either, because there are Christian mothers who think censorship is wrong too.

An elected representative has no excuse for ignorance, however. We pay good money to advisors to keep them informed. Mark Newton is quite rightly concerned about Kate Ellis’ ignorance.

She was unknowingly parroting the same factual errors that Conroy uses every time he opens his mouth on this issue. It’s obvious that there’s a set of talking points that has been distributed around the Parliamentary Labor Party, and no matter which member you talk to they’ll say the same things.

Those same things are easy targets, low-hanging fruit. Because they’ve so completely failed to educate themselves on the facts of this issue, they’re absolutely simple to demolish.

There was nothing Ms Ellis said at the meeting that couldn’t be drilled into the floor by the factual data I’d footnoted in my letter (and I’ll be following up the meeting with another letter drawing attention to that fact, and suggesting that she forward my footnotes to ALP policy hacks so that they can replace their current talking points with true ones).

The overwhelming impression I walked away with is that the ALP members who support this policy don’t know what they’re talking about. They haven’t researched it, they don’t understand the existing law, they don’t understand the scope of what they’re proposing; It seems that they actually believe the talking points because they don’t know any better.

Anh Nguyen reckons the Phase 2 filtering trials should go ahead, asking “Why not give some families a chance to pilot to see if it suits their requirements?”

My response to that is simple: You already have plenty of options without interfering with everyone else’s Internet.

Why aren’t you trying the existing “filtered” Internet available from ISPs in the Internet Industry Association’s Family Friendly ISP program?

Why aren’t you using the free taxpayer-funded filters downloadable from NetAlert?

If you’ve tried them already and they don’t work for you, why not try one of the many other filters on the market?

Why not band together with like-minded parents and start your own “safe” ISP?

Why, exactly, do you expect the government to do your child-minding for you, and every other taxpayer to pay for it?

Anthony Albanese’s letter

Here’s the full text of the letter I received today. You can also download it as a text file for handy editing.

Dear Mr Stilgherrian

Thank you for your fax regarding ISP filtering. I am aware that the proposal has attracted some criticism from those, like yourself, who are concerned that it will lead to censorship of the internet. However, the Australian Government has no plans to stop adults from viewing material that is currently legal, if they wish to view such material.

The Government regards freedom of speech as very important and the Government’s cyber-safety policy is in no way designed to curtail this.

The internet is an essential tool for all Australian children through which they can exchange information, be entertained, socialise and do school work and research. The ability to use online tools effectively provides both a skill for life and the means to acquire new skills.

However, while the internet has created substantial benefits for children it has also exposed them to a number of dangers, including exposure to offensive content. As such, parents rightly expect the Government to play its part in the protection of children online.

The Government has committed $125.8 million over the next four years to a comprehensive range of cyber-safety measures, including law enforcement, filtering and education. Measures include:

  • Australian Federal Police (AFP) Child Protection Operations Team – funding to detect and investigate online child sex exploitation;
  • Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions – funding to help deal with the increased activity resulting from the work of the AFP to ensure that prosecutions are handled quickly;
  • ISP level filtering – funding to develop and implement ISP filtering, including undertaking a real world ‘live’ pilot;
  • Education activities – funding to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to implement a comprehensive range of education activities;
  • Websites / Online helpline – funding to ACMA to improve current Government cyber-safety website resources and to make them easier for parents to use, and to provide up-to-date information. ACMA will also develop a children’s cybersafety website to provide information specifically for children, and improve the online helpline to provide a quick and easy way for children to report online incidents that cause them concern;
  • Consultative Working Group – funding for an expanded Consultative Working Group. The Group will consider the broad range of cyber-safety issues and advise the Government, to ensure properly developed and targeted policy initiatives;
  • Youth Advisory Group – funding for a Youth Advisory Group which will provide advice to the Consultative Working Group on cyber-safety issues from a young person’s perspective; and
  • Research – funding for ongoing research into the changing digital environment to identify issues and target future policy and funding.

These initiatives will tackle the issue of cyber-safety from a number of directions to help clean up the online environment and protect Australian children from the dangers of the internet now and into the future. This approach acknowledges the key role parents and carers have in the online safety of children, and provides them with the necessary information to assist with this task. This initiative also recognises that there is no single solution to ensure children can access the internet safely.

A key part of the Government’s plan to make the internet a safer place for children is the introduction of ISP level filtering. The policy reflects our community’s growing belief that ISPs should take some responsibility for enabling the blocking of illegal material on the internet. Filtering would cover illegal and prohibited content using an expanded ACMA blacklist of prohibited sites, which includes images of the sexual abuse of children.

Consideration is being given to more sophisticated filtering techniques for those individual families who wish to exclude additional online content in their own homes.

The Government wants to ensure that Australian parents can access a ‘clean feed’ internet service. This will be informed by the technology adopted in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Canada where ISP filtering, predominantly of child pornography, has been successfully introduced without affecting internet performance to a noticeable level.

The Government’s ISP filtering policy is being developed through an informed and considered approach, including industry consultation and close examination of overseas models to assess their suitability for Australia.

ACMA recently completed an extensive laboratory trial of available ISP filtering technology. The trial looked specifically at the effect of a range of filter products on network performance, effectiveness in identifying and blocking i”egal and

inappropriate content, scope to filter non-web traffic, and the ability to customise the filter to the requirements of different end-users.

The laboratory trial indicated that ISP filtering products have developed in their effectiveness since they were last assessed in 2005. The Government wll now proceed with a ‘live’ pilot in the second half of 2008 which will provide valuable information on the effectiveness and efficiency of filters installed in a ‘real world’ ISP network. An Expression of Interest will be released in due course seeking the participation of ISPs in the pilot.

The Government is committed to working closely with internet industries to address any concerns, including costs and internet speeds. These concerns will be carefully considered during the pilot and will further inform the Government’s cyber-safety policy.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. I trust this information will be of assistance.

Yours Sincerely,

Anthony Albanese MP
Federal Member for Grayndler
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development & Local Government
Leader of the House

28 October 2008

Further Reading

21 December 2008: In the weeks since this post was written, I’ve written more on this issue, as have others.

If you have time to read only one article, make it Irene Graham’s incredibly well-researched Australian Gov’t Mandatory ISP Filtering/Censorship Plan. What Irene doesn’t know about this issue wouldn’t even cover half the head of a pin.

If you like my style of writing, then you might like these pieces:

There’s some earlier material, listed here newest-first:

Gosh, this really has been my Issue of the Year, eh?

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  1. Stephen Collins’s avatar

    Typical “on message” responses that fail to address issues. Has this government got arguably greater lack of original though than the previous? It would appear so.

    I fear for our children. Not from the rarely-if-ever encountered nasties, but from the Australia we will leave them as a legacy of our elected representatives’ rank incompetence.

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  2. Fitzroyalty’s avatar

    Lindsay Tanner thinks that we the public want to talk to the government via web 2.0 tools (reported in The Australian). I’m not talking to the Labor government at all until they stop this web censorship rubbish. I long ago stopped voting for Labor and have never voted Liberal, but if Turnbull promises no censorship then I will vote for the Liberals at the next election. Conroy et al have made a grave political mistake.

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  3. Max Tivey’s avatar

    I’m a parent (kids grown) and I must say that NO-ONE but me has the right to censor what my children/grandchildren see on-line. Nor will I tolerate the Govt trying to censor what I look at on-line. My PC, and my son’s (he is 16) have already been set up with software to get around this STUPID censorship. NO-ONE has the right to censor what I watch, read, or play, certainly not the ratbags behind this ‘scheme’. Reprehensible, Kevin. Sack Con(job)roy & fielding, and GET REAL!!!.

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  4. Max Tivey’s avatar

    BTW: Just for ‘fun’ I went online to see if I could find any of these ‘nasty’ sites. COULDN’T FIND ONE!!! I’m IT trained, and can safely say that the ‘bad stuff’ WILL NOT just pop up on your child’s browser. You MUST look VERY HARD to find child-porn, terrorist sites, (usually in Arabic or similar, which most kids can’t understand), or hate sites. The Govt is wrong. Family First is wrong. The media is beneath contempt for not getting onto this (David Koch is in favour, I rest my case), and so the ‘concerned parents’ are up in arms. IDIOTS! Make parents undergo compulsory computer training, don’t force censorship on the innocent. BTW; If I personally want to view ‘illegal’ material, that is up to ME! Not the Govt, not Foreskins First, NOBODY!!! SUCK IT DOWN, A$$HOLES!

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  5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    Thank you for your comments, gentlemen.

    I do find it ironic that Lindsay Tanner wants to use “web 2.0 tools” to engage the public in a dialog in the same week that members of parliament are quite clearly not capable of dialog with the people who use ordinary fax machines. I asked Anthony Albanese specific questions. They were ignored.

    If the government can’t even read and respond to voters who go through the hoops involved with sending a fax, how do they think they’ll cope with the flood of commentary they’ll get through a blog?

    I’ve watched a Senate Estimates session where one Senator (maybe the ACT’s Kate Lundy?) was stirred for having her computer there. It’s as if MPs are proud of being unable to use a computer. To me, that just shows ignorance. Would the be proud to be illiterate? They’re proud to be ignorant, it seems!

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  6. Snarky Platypus’s avatar

    I am 99% sure this is destined to end up collapsing in a messy heap, so I wonder if there’s some strange power play behind the pushing of this policy.

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  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Snarky Platypus: I suspect this was meant to be a back-burner issue and the government is annoyed it’s gone “live”. As I said in Crikey on 24 October:

    I reckon Conroy knows the filters are a dud. When that report dropped, he “welcomed” it and was “encouraged” by it, but only The Australian used the word “success”. Not Conroy — a fact his office confirmed to Crikey this morning.

    I reckon he’s just going through the motions with Coonan’s timetable to keep Family First Senator Steve Fielding happy. Fielding’s Senate vote is desperately needed for other matters, as is überpopulist Nick Xenophon’s — a man who knows the value of words like “kiddie p-rn” in stirring the voters’ emotions. Until that much-anticipated double dissolution election, anyway, after which Conroy can renegotiate with the somewhat-more-rational Greens.

    The Australian‘s spin may not have indicated a pro-censorship angle on their part. I suspect it was just the sub-editor follishly simplifying Conroy’s “welcoming” of the report into a welcoming of the filtering itself. Conroy has certainly been back-pedalling ever since.

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  8. Priscilla’s avatar

    “Me too”. I wrote to Senator Conroy and CC’d a copy to my MP, Tanya Plibersek. I received a much shorter response than you received, Stilgherrian, but the message was along similar lines (i.e. the Australian Government has no plans to stop adults from viewing material that is currently legal).

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  9. Stephen Stockwell’s avatar

    It’s really becoming quite interesting to watch Senator Conroy’s (and the government’s) underlying strategy start to poke through his/their tactics:

    1. Secure the parliamentary support of Steven Fielding and Nick Xenophon.
    2. Maintain the majority vote of the bulk of the electorate who use the internet.

    Classic servant of two masters stuff. The nearest analogy I can think of is one of those cartoon scenes where some knucklehead, with each of his feet on the roof of a different train carriage, comes to a junction and finds his footing beneath him veering off in either direction. Now in the cartoons, legs stretch, bodies are dismembered and heads get lost — but no one seems to have actually died by the time the credits roll. But the real world doesn’t work that way, as Sen. Conroy is by now no doubt discovering.

    The situation with this internet censorship thingumy is reaching a point of critical mass. The tendons in Stephen Conroy’s inner thighs are at breaking point. Which way will he go? Well, if I were a politician with my arse to the wall between Fielding/Xenophon and the majority of internet-using voters, I know what I’d do. But the way he’s going, Conroy’s on track to publicly tear himself a new arsehole by Christmas.

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  10. istara’s avatar

    I still cannot understand WHY they want to do this. Given it would be a breach of constitutional law to try and use the filtering to censor political matters, what can they hope to gain by blocking any sites?

    It’s not as though paedos hang out at childpr0n.com or some obvious URL. That material gets swapped through private, P2P networks which the filtering isn’t even attempting to address. They’re not trying to recruit kids at a child pr0n domain. They’ll be luring them through MySpace or Bebo or chat networks. So even the optional child-safe filtering is bound to fail, even if the child isn’t already managing to circumvent it by a dozen or more really obvious, easy methods.

    Senator Conroy has such limited knowledge and understanding of the internet and frankly technology in general, that it is not possible to explain any of this to him. He is a blinkered zealot.

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  11. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @istara: Internet censorship isn’t so much of a constitutional issue for Australia, as our “right to free speech” only applies to political matters, nothing else — something which puts us at odds with most Western democracies. It’s yet another reason why I think Australia should have a formal Bill of Rights.

    You’ve identified the jumbling-together of two issues here, though:

    • Stopping the transmission of child pornography, because it’s illegal; and
    • Preventing children seeing material which their parents do not think it’s right for them to see.

    Then on top of that, all sorts of lobbyists want to add other material which they think shouldn’t be on the Internet because it’s “bad” in some way. They seem to believe that because they don’t want to see it, or they don’t want their children to see it, then everyone should have that option removed. By the government.

    The government’s plans are a shambles because the politics is a shambles. As I said somewhere before, you can’t come up with a technical solution for anything until you’ve clearly defined what it is that you want to do. And this is a separate issue from whether what you propose to do is even technically possible — and they must be defined clearly before there can be a meaningful discussion.

    In the case of Internet censorship, there is no clear plan whatsoever — and Conroy isn’t helping by muddying the waters further, using the terms “illegal” and “inappropriate” and “harmful” and “unwanted” interchangeably. Yet these terms must mean different things — even if they don’t have any clear legal definition.

    Senator Conroy may or may not know much about the Internet, but then very few Australian politicians do. It continues to amaze me that people whose very life is about communication and managing networks of influence can be so remarkably ignorant of the new tools of their trade.

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  12. Observer’s avatar

    OK guys, how about we get a couple of facts right before we go off on all sorts of misleading tangents…

    First of all the proposed censorship is totally consitutional. In fact Conroy is in breach of the consitution by not applying existing censorship laws to the Internet.

    As great and fabulous as the Internet is, and it is my job too, it is not outside the law folks. Censorship has existed for around a century in Australia, and is now being applied to the Internet.

    And why? Simply because industry self-regulation has failed miserably. We all had our chances to provide a modicum of regulation ourselves and avoid this pain, but we were all just too smart and smalmy for our own good, and now we have the government doing it… Thanks guys.

    I have read NO-WHERE in Conroy’s statements that he interchanges “illegal” and “inappropriate”, but I read it in blogs a dozen times a day. He is mis-quoted and has his statements mixed around on a regular basis, and then people base their attacks on the mis-quotes.

    Sounds like a Sarah Palin method to me… lol

    There are two levels of filtering proposed, there always have been, and the ISP I work with will be testing both.

    1. Illegal stuff. Mandatory and a blacklist. Now all you ISP and Internet savvy guys KNOW that you cannot have a false positive from a blacklist, as a blacklist system does not categorise. Manual entries. Sure you can argue about what is on the list, but remember the blacklist stuff has been deemed illegal by the same dudes who review flms, books, TV etc. I do not see anyone arguing about their work on those mediums as yet?????

    2. Inappropriate stuff: “Optional Cleanfeed”, Opt-in/Opt-out system. Who for crying out loud compares that with China? No limiting what adults want to see, as long as it is legal. And if you believe that parents should not be deciding what their kids see then I can recommend a couple of good therapists for you…

    “China” style censorship? Don’t insult the people in China who lose life, limb, freedom and dignity in opposing that truly repressive regime by comparing this application of censorship to what they suffer. Sorry folks, but that is demeaning to the Chinese and utterly selfish. Give us a break. You wouldn’t even be able to read or create this blog in China, and Stilgherrian would have been carted off to jail and a worse fate long ago.

    Get some reality into the discussion before make such ridiculous comparisons. I have associates in China. Try their shoes on for a while and you may rethink such claims.

    As for you Internet savvy folks, you know as well as I do that the Australian government will never, as long as we have our democratic society, never be able to secretly block content without us knowing it immediately. Crickey, there will be notices… Now I do not know if you know anyone overseas, but I can get the contents of a webpage checked within minutes. So let’s drop those unreal suggestions of the Internet being hijacked..

    As for the law: ACMA may only mandatory block what has been deemed illegal by the censorship board, just like any other communications medium we have here. So your complaints should be directed at the censorship board… I am sure that you are all doing that already…

    Right?

    Now the “REAL” question will be the performance degradation issue. All previous trials were a joke, that is true. However, this is now an application of real-world testing with real products, well at least some. It is a problem that the testing contractors do not have much experience in this area. But this time it is wide open, ISPs are running the tests, ENEX and ACMA will be involved but the setup will come from the ISPs and their vendor partners.

    I would be suspect of anyone fearing or attacking the trials. Just what are you afraid of?? That it works? If not, then just let it happen.

    We are testing a technology that works fine in a 5 million user group of a 9 million customer Asian ISP, and also works fine (7th year) in a 1.5 million user schools network in Europe.

    My 13 years in the Australian ISP industry have shown again and again that the greatest performance limits and degradation here is a result of Telstra’s policies and strategies. Significant limitations and slowness created across the whole industry. And it is their strategy to keep it that way until you pay through the nose. If you truly have concerns about Internet speeds here, then complain to Telstra, or write to your Senator about getting Telstra split. And yes I have worked for and with Telstra, and I have provided networking gear to them.

    BTW: Great blog Stilgherrian, and no offence meant to any of you guys!!

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  13. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Observer: Thanks for the detailed comment. Alas, I still don’t have the energy to respond to every point, but there are some key flaws in your arguments.

    1. ‘I have read NO-WHERE in Conroy’s statements that he interchanges “illegal” and “inappropriate”‘ is the ol’ fallacious argument by personal ignorance. The inconsistent language in Labor’s policy has been well documented by Irene Graham. The terms “illegal” and “unwanted” and “inappropriate” have indeed been used in different contexts without clarification. You’re not looking hard enough.
    2. The ACMA “blacklist” is not necessarily “illegal” material but includes, say, MA15+ material that is not protected by an age verification mechanism. That the blacklist is “mostly child pornography” is an assertion which has not been backed up with evidence, as the blacklist is not publicly available and indeed a specific law was passed to exempt it from Freedom of Information requests.
    3. Material on the blacklist has, by and large, not been through the Classification Board (formerly OFLC) classification process, but is simply deemed by an ACMA functionary that it could “potentially” be classified — not the same thing at all. This is a common misunderstanding of the process, and again Irene Graham’s comprehensive website outlines Australia’s actual Internet censorship process.
    4. Decisions of the Classification Board have not be without controversy. Your assertion that “I do not see anyone arguing about their work on those mediums as yet” is, again, the fallacious argument from personal ignorance.
    5. I’d be interested to know your criteria for “works fine” in the implementations you mention. What were the systems’ stated goals? What are the false positive and false negative rates? What rates were stated to be “acceptable” before the systems were built?
    6. “And if you believe that parents should not be deciding what their kids see” is a furphy. Parents already have mechanisms available to “decide what their kids see”, through the industry’s Family-Friendly ISP program, through the free filters of NetAlert (at least until the end of the month), through any of the commercially-available filters, or just by supervising their children like parents are goddam meant to.

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  14. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Observer: I’ve just had someone tell me that you are “not completely unrelated to a vendor of ISP filtering solutions.” Is this allegation true?

    If so, it would explain the fairly high volume of similar commentary you’re posting at the moment, and it’d precisely fit the scenario I described in Angry geeks: “Don’t waste money on internet filters” back in January:

    Real-world experience in everything from spam filters to the record industry’s futile attempts to stop copyright violations always shows that filters only block casual users. Professionals, the desperate or the persistent will always get through.

    However if a politician demands a filter, pretty soon a shiny-suited salesman will appear, ready to sell him a box with “filter” written on the front. It’ll work — well enough for the demo, anyway.

    “Look, Minister! Nice Minister. Watch the screen. See? Filter off, bad website is visible. Filter on, bad website gone. Filter off. Child in danger. Filter on. Child happy and safe. Filter off. Voter afraid and angry. Filter on. Voter relaxed and comfortable. Cheque now please.”

    Failing to disclose a conflict of interest or other potential source of bias in a discussion is unethical, wouldn’t you agree? If the allegation is true, of course. It may not be. Is it?

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  15. Jinjirrie’s avatar

    Your Observer expresses remarkably similar content to that of the Observer on my blog — see comment after this post

    Sadly, said Observer has not rematerialised to participate in follow-up debate — hoping you have better luck :)

    Reply

  16. D'gar’s avatar

    Observer has visited me too. It seems he is not interested in debate, possibly because his arguments are so easily destroyed by just about everyone who has had the good fortune to be noticed by him. The tactic seems to involve hitting a blog with a strongly worded comment backed up sweepingly vague arguments and no evidence. Observer has started his own blog where he states he will not identify himself or his interest in the issue and will not participate in a debate.

    Apparently when he’s finished saying something, that’s all there is to say.

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  17. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Jinjirrie and @D’gar: I think I know precisely who Observer is, and precisely what his interest is in Internet filtering and where he fits into the “business ecology” (Hah! I said it! Such a lame term) of this little realm. I think on Monday I’ll write that up.

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