Angry geeks: “Don’t waste money on internet filters”

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[This is what I wrote for Crikey, finally published today.]

Child Wise’s Bernadette McMenamin found out the hard way: geeks get angry when you suggest filtering their Internet. OK, she only wants to block child porn and other illegal nasties, that’s clear now. But the geeks are still angry.


  1. Two completely different problems are conflated. One, preventing distribution of already-illegal child pornography to anyone. Two, preventing children from viewing undefined “inappropriate” material, but allowing access to others in the same home. Different problems need different solutions, but they’re jumbled together for political purposes. Naughty naughty, Senators Conroy and Fielding.
  2. Taxpayer-funded technical “solutions” are proposed for social problems. As John Birmingham reminds us, the government is not your babysitter.
  3. Technical illiterates are demanding specific answers: filters. Those in the know are already several pages ahead in this story, and know filters won’t work. Geeks get angry when their knowledge isn’t respected — even when it isn’t understood (or understandable).

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.”

The UK’s CleanFeed system is hailed as a model, but even its builders admit that it won’t stop the hardened paedophile. By obviously blocking some websites but not others, they’re showing the bad guys where to concentrate their efforts at breaking through.

Mike, creator of, sums it up:

We don’t want to waste money and pretend we are helping kids when we actually could be helping kids. You know, by funding health services and the police. A bloody filter won’t reduce how many kids are being exploited.

Just as the local council connects us to public roads, ISPs connect us to the public internet. They can’t “filter out bad stuff” any more than councils can prevent kids encountering anything bad once they walk down the driveway. Unless we hold their hands.

10 Replies to “Angry geeks: “Don’t waste money on internet filters””

  1. Hmm, I would argue that the current generation anti-spam filtering *is* quite effective. This is possibly not the comparison we want to draw; ministers may look at the huge flood of spam in their Junk folder and the relative scarcity of it in their Inbox, and conclude that nasties can be filtered from the internet using similarly advanced magic/technology.

    The big problem I have with this proposal is that the government is outsourcing the regulation of behaviour on the internet. It is handing control of what people can and can’t see to private interests. Private interests that, crucially, are not accountable to the general public. More here, pardon the blogpimping.

  2. This sort of policy is for punters who get their political analysis as well as their tech info from the same source; in Sydney that would be the Terrorgraph

    Rather than be an angry geek, why not become that Rich Geek and be that “shiny-suited salesman”…

    Just make sure that the specs u negotiate with the contract are flexible enough to work say 85% of the time? That gotta be better than the current, huh?

    Hey — what is wrong with that? Prostitution and lying are age old habits.

    Not linked through to Birmo’s commentary on this, but for hells sake — an easier way of getting this sort of “nanny state” protection would be to encourage scared parents to just bloody well buy NetNanny or some such and offer them a tax rebate.


  3. Wow, comments from Extremely Important Ãœbergeeks Alastair Rankine and Simon Rumble in the same piece! I am seriously humbled!

    @Simon Rumble: Thank you! I was imagining a cross between Homer Simpson and Yes Minister.

    @Alastair: Thanks for the pointer. Pimp away! I’ll do the same to you. 😉

    @Bernard: The John Birmingham piece really is a hoot. But sorry, I can’t become that shiny-suited salesman. My sense of ethics simply wouldn’t allow me.

  4. Flying Spaghetti Monster style I think we should definitely demand that the government also install motion sensors into the bumper-bars of all road-legal vehicles which automatically brake the car if a child is spotted. And perhaps mandatory security guards for parks where children play to ensure they aren’t snatched away. If we’re going to have crack-pot schemes, let us do it properly.

  5. It’s now more than a year since this post was written. Yet in the video of the ISP Filtering debate at Kickstart 09 on the weekend — a year later — ChildWise’s Bernadette McMenamin is still saying she doesn’t understand why there’s opposition to the government’s plans to “filter the Internet”.

    Bernadette, what’s not to understand?

    The argument is so simple that it fits in a single sentence.

    We only have a finite amount of money, so we’d like it to be spent on projects which actually achieve results, like the Australian Federal Police’s OCSET team, rather than wasted on an ill-defined IT project which is highly unlikely to have any real effect on the distribution of child sexual abuse material and which has the potential for serious side effects.

    Need a shorter sentence?

    Please spend our limited funds on things which work, as opposed to things which don’t work.

    You admit yourself that you don’t understand the technology. That’s fine. So why don’t you have the common decency to respect the opinions of those who do understand the technology? Why, instead, do you slur their reputations and infer there’s some “hidden agenda”?

    Actually, it’s not fine, Bernadette.

    You’ve had an entire year to come up to speed on these issues. The Internet didn’t suddenly pop up overnight: some of us have been using it for more than 20 years. How it works isn’t a secret. It’s very well documented, and while no-one expects you to become a network engineer you could at least make an effort to get your head around the basics.

    Instead, you’re still running the argument that we have to try everything, even things we know don’t work, and that you don’t understand why that’s wrong.

    Bernadette. What’s. Not. To. Understand?

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