Conroy thoroughly tangled in his own Rabbit-Proof Firewall

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[This article was first published in Crikey on Thursday, along with the superb Conroy a fearless combatant in the war against free speech by their Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane. I’ve added a few extra links and changed it from Crikey’s typographical rules to my own.]

As any farmer can tell you, fencing is bloody dangerous. The stretch-wire-between-posts thing, I mean, not the pointy-steel-pokey thing. One mistake and it’s THWACKKKK! Ten metres of barbed wire whipping into your face.

Senator Stephen Conroy is discovering the hard way that trying to build a Rabbit-Proof Firewall around the Internet is just as dangerous. As Bernard Keane points out in Crikey [Thursday], the standard politicians’ tactic — lying — doesn’t cut it in today’s hyperconnected world.

But even this morning, on ABC Radio National’s The Media Report, Conroy was still claiming it’s only about illegal content.

“There is illegal material on the Net, things like child pornography, things like ultra-violent sites,” intoned Senator Conroy. “What we’re seeking to do is take technology and actually enforce the existing law… We’re seeking to use new and emerging advances to block access to sites like that.”

“Let me be clear,” he continued. “We are committed to work with the industry to see if it is technical feasible — that’s why we have conduced a laboratory test and we’re moving to conduct a live test with ISPs, and that’s Labor’s policies.”

Thing is, we can all download the results of that lab test Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filters and read for ourselves, on page 2, that the tests covered “technology to filter illegal or inappropriate content”, and on page 21 how the test sites included those rated PG, M, MA… Despite Conroy’s repeated assertion, the tests explicitly included perfectly legal material.

Why conduct tests of something you don’t intend to implement? A waste of taxpayers’ money, surely?

Why continue with a “live” test when the lab test demonstrated such poor performance?

As Crikey has reported (Tuesday, 9 July 2008, Internet filters a success, if success = failure) [local copy], even the best filter has a false-positive rate of 3% under ideal lab conditions. That might not sound much, but Mark Newton (the network engineer who Conroy’s office tried to bully last week) reckons that for a medium-sized ISP that’s 3000 incorrect blocks every second. Another maths-heavy analysis says that every time that filter blocks something there’s an 80% chance it was wrong.

Senator Conroy was back-pedalling this morning:

A whole range of people have said, ‘Hey, let’s expand this!’ That’s a debate that we will come to. We are no further than establishing at the moment whether it is technically feasible. In terms of what some of the Senators claim should be included on the blacklist, I’m sure that when we get to the debate down the track, if it proves to be technically feasible, there’ll be a whole range of people with a whole range of demands about what should be on the blacklist. But what we’ve committed to do is practically implement what’’s on the blacklist at the moment.

Conroy justifies continuing the trials by saying Labor “made this commitment back when Kim Beazley was leader of the Labor Party.” True, they did. They also committed to a Coast Guard and a Department of Homeland Security — both well and truly dropped.

Whatever Conroy says, this is arse-about policy-making. Surely the sensible way to proceed would be to decide what Australians should and shouldn’t see on the internet, express that in a coherent policy, and then ask the technologists and educators how to achieve that aim.

[Added 1 November: Assuming, that is, that you actually have a legally-valid mandate to construct a comprehensive, centralised, secretive, unaccountable Internet censorship machine.]

Mark Newton was spot on when he said:

Politicians assume that parents are ignorant about the Internet because politicians are ignorant. Yet parents came to grips with it years ago; the last remaining social group in our country who expresses difficulty with the Internet appears to be baby-boomer Federal politicians, whose child-rearing days are mostly well behind them.

Well, the Government is now getting a crash course in hyperpolitics. Those online are better connected, smarter, and faster. We can spot the lies.

15 Replies to “Conroy thoroughly tangled in his own Rabbit-Proof Firewall”

  1. 100% right it’s the old bastards in Canberraaaa (and state capitals) that don’t have a clue.

    I rather think that we the netizens should be offering free and accessible training to these people so they understand the world we now live in. ICanHasCheezBurger101 if you get my drift.

  2. I note that in the Courier Mail that the appears to be an attempt to change the debate to one of protecting children from legal porn. Michael Carr-Gregg has come out in support of the ISP filtering as he claims we are seeing a rise in children performing sex acts on other children due to having watched porn on the internet.

  3. @Allison Reynolds: Politicians have to cover such a huge range of different topics that they simply have to rely on their advisors to, well, advise them.

    I don’t necessarily think we should be giving people free training, since politicians already pay their own advisors and us muggins taxpayers pay for the public service. But I do see problems with the current model.

    1. The advisors they employ directly are part of the political machinery. They tend to come with pre-programmed political biases and are keen to tell the politicians what they want to hear so they can keep their jobs and climb further up that greasy pole.
    2. The public service bureaucracy still moves too slowly. The ACMA’s annual report for 2007–08, for example, was only published this week. Trying to steer the nation through a time of great change using that sort of document is like trying to drive a fast car by reading last week’s newspaper reports of traffic jams. I’ll have more to say about that another time.

    @Sean the Blogonaut: Yeah, I saw the Courier Mail piece, Web filter ‘needed’ to protect kids from porn. I didn’t see this so much as an attempt to change the debate, but simple the media exploring different angles as the story evolves — though yes, some of the people quoted may be rent-a-pundits provided by PR companies.

    I suspect also that the speed at which the hyperconnected Interne-based freedom of speech campaigners can move caught “the other side” off guard, and they’re responding now that the discussion has reached “the mainstream media”. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds from here.

  4. @posty: I wouldn’t exactly call that clip a persuasive repudiation of the ISP Firewall. Who is the intended audience: The government? Internet users in general? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it’s far too easy for the government — and a generally conservative electorate — to dismiss a protest from what appears to be a group of students and the unemployed … simply because they look like students and the unemployed. Indeed, if a bunch of bohemian-looking types appear to the wider community to be holding the mantle of the case for no internet censorship, then their actions have the potential to diminish support from it’s true magnitude as a popular internet-users movement. Perceptions like these matter to government because they matter to families watching the news over dinner. So if we really want to stop this thing, I think something with a little more gravitas, maturity and relevance than a small lunch-time rally on the steps of Parliament House (in Adelaide, if I’m not mistaken) is what’s required. It might not be fair, but that’s the way the world works … and how you get RESULTS.

    Sorry about the whinge.
    I’ll shut up now.

  5. @Stephen Stockwell I could have cut it differently, leaving the ‘bohemian’ types out, but it wouldn’t be representative of the people that were there. I thought of doing exactly that, but I didn’t want to spin the shit out of it.

    Maybe I should have done exactly that.

    I’m not a marketing whiz, the concept was put together in a manner of seconds. I didn’t want these peoples enthusiasm for a good cause going to nothing. Sure, It was a ‘small time lunch rally’, but people aren’t going to be out for blood in the streets over these types of things.

    most people don’t appear to care a tinkers cuss about freedom of speech and censorship until it directly effects them and they see it happening.

    My intended message was that ALL SORTS of people, be it perceived ‘normal’ people, the weird looking people, everyone is against this thing; not just a typical ‘campaign’ like ad with just bright-eyed and bushy tailed youth with no logos and nobody looking vaguely different.

    That these different people are against the ‘clean feed’ and not ‘pro child pornography’ which conroy has spouted at near every turn whenever criticised.

    If I get people saying “what the fuck is a clean feed?” and the impression that some people are going “clean feed = bad thing” that’s good enough for me. I’ve shown it to people whom I expected not knowing anything about it and that’s the exact response that I’ve gotten. I’ve learn’t some valuable lessons with this video too.

    but, Who the hell watches youtube over dinner? I didn’t expect this to be picked up by mass-media. I expected this to be handed around ‘viral’ style. and from the statistics, it appears I have achieved this goal.

    Thanks for the criticism and I think you’re mostly right – but I’m doing something. you’re whinging on a blog. 😀

    I invite you to one-up me sir. 😛

  6. @Stephen Stockwell: I think posty has you there, Sir! A challenge has been made!

    One of the trickiest things about this debate is that the government has already framed it in terms of “clean feeds” and “filtering”. Filters remove bad things, as in “filtered water”. Every time you repeat “clean feed”, even to say you don’t want one, you reinforce the government’s meme that the Internet is dirty and needs cleaning.

    I’ve tried to use the word “censorship” rather than “filtering” at every opportunity for that reason. This is also who I went for the Rabbit-Proof Firewall, to evoke images of an old-fashion, ineffective barrier and to piggy-back on BigPond’s “keep the rabbits out” meme.

    We definitely need a new frame for this, though.

  7. @Stilgherrian & posty: Some very fair points there, gentlemen. There’s a lot going on in my world over the next couple of months, so I’ll have to see how I go at putting something together. But until such time as I meet that challenge, I shall return to my seat.

    No one likes a whinger.
    Including me.

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