Internet censorship dumbness

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 Conroy’s statement is.

The government’s proposal is not about child pornography at all, which is already seriously illegal online and offline. It is about legal pornography and other ‘inappropriate’ 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 ‘inappropriate’ 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 Conroy’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 won’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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 party’s Senator Fielding has already commented upon the filtering proposal saying, “Australian families want more [internet protection] and deserve more than they are currently getting, and this is a real test for the Rudd Government.” 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.

8 Replies to “Internet censorship dumbness”

  1. I give credit to Senator Bartlett for summing up Conroy’s actions in just one sentence:

    “However, comments like Conroy’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.”

    Conroy is yet to respond to any of the hundreds of questions being asked. I don’t know about the web, but I hope he has a good filter on his email client come Monday morning.

  2. Am I the only person with a vivid mental image of frantic voyeurs, ‘panic downloading’ a stash of pornography before the ban?

  3. @Mike: You’re right, that’s exactly the summary. Thanks for your comment — and for the other work you’re doing on this subject!

    @Richard: Heh! Maybe that’s just your worldview catching up with you. 😉 Still, one rational person has already rushed to ask not to be blocked. I did point out that’d be fruitless at this stage.

    One disturbing aspect of Conroy’s framing is that anyone asking for a “clean feed” (i.e. a dirty feed, warts n’all) is being branded a child pornographer. Who will have access to that list? How long before it’s leaked? How long before a tabloid journalist uses the existence of an unfiltered Internet connection in someone’s home as “proof” that that person is dodgy?

Comments are closed.