The Rudd government’s plan to force ISP’s to provide a “clean feed” of the Internet free of pornography and “inappropriate material” (whatever that might be) has already generated plenty of informed criticism. However what worries me more is Senator Stephen Conroy’s disgustingly disingenuous framing of the debate.
Labor makes no apologies to those who argue that any regulation of the Internet is like going down the Chinese road. If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree.
As usual, Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett hits the nail on the head, and makes my point for me.
No free speech advocate that I know of advocates such absolute freedom as to defend the provision of child pornography… But the fact it is already illegal shows just how dishonest Conroyâ€™s statement is.
The governmentâ€™s proposal is not about child pornography at all, which is already seriously illegal online and offline. It is about legal pornography and other â€˜inappropriateâ€™ material.
The arguments against this clean-feed idea are simple: it won’t work, and it opens up an unacceptable risk of further government intrusion into our freedom to communicate.
As Senator Bartlett continues:
The catch-all nature of the term â€˜inappropriateâ€™ gives me concern. I have little faith that the current government will prove much better than governments everywhere, and be unable to resist the urge to continually increase the scope of what they try to control…
As with every aspect of the measure, until the full details are known its impossible to judge. However, comments like Conroyâ€™s make it much harder to be confident that the government is doing anything other than populist pandering, putting up a feel-good measure which will have no practical impact but create the illusion of doing something effective. Such ineffective actions can even cause harm by lulling parents into a false sense of security, thinking that the internet their kids are accessing at home is effectively filtered when it probably wonâ€™t be.
A “clean feed” is impossible. There’s only two ways to identify and block “bad stuff”. Both approaches are used in spam filtering and that’s 100% effective, right? Right.
- You have a list of where the bad stuff comes from and block those sites. This appears to be the method being proposed. But with new websites going online every minute, and with the ability to “spread the word” in every child’s hands, a list of “bad” sites can’t possibly be kept up to date.
- You look at the content “live” and try to determine whether it’s good or bad on the fly. However trying to identify “inappropriate” material automatically generates too many false positives. Legitimate material would be blocked by accident. Unacceptable.
In any event, simple tools already exist to circumvent filters like this. They’ll be adapted and available to every Australian child within hours of these filters going live.
The question to ask is “Why is Conroy framing this debate so harshly?”
I doubt it’s because he’s stupid, because so far he’s shown every sign of intelligence. Is it because he’s one of the “union thugs” John Howard warned us about? If so, it’s time for him to learn a more nuanced debating style. But surely he’s been around long enough to learn a bit of subtlety?
I reckon Tim Dunlop has the answer: Stephen Conroy is Labor’s numbers man in the Senate.
The government is ultimately going to have to deal with a Senate that includes the likes of Family First. That partyâ€™s Senator Fielding has already commented upon the filtering proposal saying, â€œAustralian families want more [internet protection] and deserve more than they are currently getting, and this is a real test for the Rudd Government.â€ It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this is all a sop to Family First in order to garner their support in other matters. Real politik, in other words.
With legislation to come first, then trials supposedly happening later this year, that gives plenty of time for Family First to agree to something simpler to implement before the trials turn out (surprise!) to be a failure.
Maybe Senator Conroy is even deliberately making the proposal so outrageous that it will be shot down.