Jim Wallace’s pro-censorship lies and distortions

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace is on the Fairfax news sites today, telling the same old lies to support compulsory Internet filtering. Sigh.

Since Wallace promotes himself as a representative of good Christian values, I’ll allow that he may just be ignorant rather than a deliberate liar. Ignorance is no sin: it can be cured with knowledge. But he does use the familiar fraudulent propaganda techniques: misrepresenting his opponents; cherry-picking numbers; failing to explore the implications of those numbers; citing the same suspect Australia Institute report; and wrapping it up in the same old “protect the children” cant.

Those of us who’ve been covering this issue for more than a year now are getting sick of responding to the same easily-rebutted debating tricks. But, as I keep saying, politics is a marathon event. So if Jim’s rolling out the same material, we’ll point out the same flaws.


Wallace starts, as is traditional, by painting a distorted picture of filtering’s critics.

It will be the downfall of the internet, the end of free speech as we know it. It will lull parents into a false sense of security, and it doesn’t even work.

But just as students are taught not to believe everything they read on the internet, so should we not believe everything said about it. Some things are too important to leave to drown in a pool of misinformation, and internet filtering is one of them.

Wallace’s propaganda technique here is the straw man. He mentions some genuine criticisms (the false sense of security and that the filter won’t work), but massively over-states others (the “downfall of the internet” and “end of free speech”). You’ll see this technique used over and over again in politics. Add “drowning in a pool” to imply a flood (i.e. lots) of falsehoods and danger, and you’ve got a powerful emotional frame.

The actual arguments are that filtering may well degrade Internet performance, and that it’s a risk to free speech because the proposal hasn’t been properly defined. That latter point is why even ultra-conservative Senator Cory Bernardi opposes the scheme.

There’s also the point — which Wallace doesn’t even mention — that the filter may not be the most efficient use of the taxpayers’ money. If we’re talking about preventing child abuse, for example, the money would achieve more if it went to the police.

The opponents of the filter are engaged in a constant dialog to inform each other, and link back to well-researched material like Irene Graham’s Libertus.net. The proponents of filtering rarely cite references, except for one: the Australia Institute’s 2003 report Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects [PDF] by Clive Hamilton and Michael Flood. It’s hardly a neutral source. Hamilton has been the key promoter of mandatory Internet filtering — indeed, there seems to be something highly personal happening there — and the arguments he uses are remarkably similar to those Jim Wallace uses today. And Hamilton hired Newspoll to conduct the survey: they’ve got form for push-polling.

There doesn’t seem to be any research from neutral sources to back the claims that “93 per cent of parents of 12- to 17-year-olds” want automatic filtering of the Internet. And even if there were, the fact that people want something to exist doesn’t mean it can exist.

I’d like to live forever, as it happens, and so would plenty of others. But it ain’t going to happen.

There doesn’t seem to be any social research supporting the filter’s proponents’ views which is less than half a decade out of date. That’s an awfully long time if we’re talking about people’s attitudes to the Internet.

Wallace doesn’t like the GetUp! campaign, perhaps because it’s raised about $50,000 and their petition has been signed by 95,000 people. That cuts out the “extremist libertarian” spin: 95,000 people looks pretty goddam mainstream.

The activist group GetUp!, for example, has raised a petition with the alarmist statement that filtering “will slow the internet by up to 87 per cent”, but the claim is based solely on the worst results of the products trialled.

It conveniently omits to advise would-be signatories that the trial results released in mid-2008 showed another of the filter products tested slowed internet performance by less than 2 per cent, and three products slowed it by less than 30 per cent.

GetUp!’s 87% figure might be alarming, but it is from the government’s own Phase 1 trials, the lab test conducted in the first half of 2008. Here’s their report again: Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filters [PDF], and here’s my original discussion.

Wallace himself “conveniently omits to advise” that the filters which “only” degraded performance less than 2% were also those with the most appalling false positive rate. Yes, he’s accusing others of cherry-picking numbers, but does exactly the same himself. I believe that’s called “hypocrisy”.

He also repeats the lie that…

From the outset, it has been clear this system is not going to stop any adult from viewing anything that is legal.

Not true. It’s far from clear. Words like “illegal” and “unwanted” and “inappropriate” and “harmful” have been jumbled together. Again, Irene Graham has documented the shifts in AU Gov’t Mandatory ISP Filtering / Censorship Plan.

As I wrote in November:

[We can] 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.

As we’ve said many times, even if filtering is limited to the ACMA blacklist, that blacklist contains much more than “illegal” material, as Irene Graham has already explained in Australia’s Internet Censorship System. Adding the undefined term “inappropriate” makes it clear that the plans intend to go beyond the merely illegal.

And, as I wrote on Friday, ACMA has already added perfectly legal political material to the blacklist.

Given all these points, of which Jim Wallace seems to be ignorant, wilfully or otherwise, there is only one conclusion:

Even if the proposed mandatory filter only blocks the ACMA blacklist, that will block material which is legal for adults to view, and that will potentially block political content.

Wallace also falls for a classic trap in numerical analysis — or deliberately hopes that his readers will — when he uses figures like “less than 3 per cent” for the false-positive rate and imagines this is good performance. Again, as I wrote in November:

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.

If Jim Wallace isn’t addressing this analysis, it’s either because he’s choosing to (in which case he’s failing to address one of the key issues) or he’s unaware of it (in which case he’s uninformed and not competent to be taking part in this debate).

Two paragraphs near the end of Wallace’s piece illustrate another technique. Quoting the Hamilton & Flood report, he says:

“Eighty-four per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls say they have been exposed accidentally to sex sites on the internet and two in five boys deliberately use the internet to see sexually explicit material, with 4 to 5 per cent doing so frequently …

“There are special concerns regarding violent and extreme material on the internet including depictions of non-consenting sexual acts such as rape and bestiality.”

The propaganda trick here is that the figures he quotes refer to “sexually explicit material”, but by tacking on the “rape and bestiality” comment he creates a false connection — that the figures refer to this substantially more disturbing but much rarer material.

Curiously enough, rape and bestiality are precisely the two examples Hamilton used in his ABC News opinion piece in November. Who’s coordinating whose talking points here?

Wallace also fails to mention that while the earlier figures were about the parents of 12- to 17-year-olds, the figures he’s here using relate to 16- to 17-year-olds only. Wallace is either careless with his writing, or he’s deliberately misleading us into thinking that children as young as 12 are “frequently” seeing this material.

Will Jim Wallace address the actual arguments being put forward? Or will he continue to repeat these same disingenuous talking points?

23 Replies to “Jim Wallace’s pro-censorship lies and distortions”

  1. I’d pay to see Jim respond to that argument in any coherent way. You should mail this article to him unless you’re confident he’ll read it here.

  2. Yep, things are pretty fucked up right here… and we’ve swapped a fundy-chasing weasel for a true believer.

    These people are not in the habit of letting facts get in the way of faith, Stil. We’re going to get their filter, and then compulsory prayer in schools, then they’ll be looking the other way while family planning clinics get bombed. Unbelievable? Perhaps so, but the filter is based on total bullshit too.

    Cheers, Andrew

  3. @websinthe: I will draw Jim Wallace’s attention to this post in some way, yes. I’m also toying with the idea of inviting some of the filter’s proponents to be interviewed.

    @Andrew Boyd: I think that in their eagerness to get rid of John Howard, yes, people did overlook Kevin Rudd’s social conservatism in the 2007 election.

    It’s worth linking to the Australian Christian Lobby‘s website and the (brief) Wikipedia article. I’ll be reading up about these folks: they haven’t been on my radar.

  4. Is it just me that thought today’s piece was Fairfax trolling for hits and letters to the editor?

  5. @anthony: The way Fairfax are going, trolling might be their only chance. But Seriously, as Stil referred to in his Article, Clive Hamilton’s disingenuous piece appeared on ABC Online and also became one of the most commented pieces I have ever seen so perhaps it isn’t the media outlets who are trolling but the strawmen. On the political side, the scariest part here is Stil’s comment to Andrew Boyd: “… in their eagerness to get rid of John Howard… people did overlook Kevin Rudd’s social conservatism in the 2007 election…” I think that is becoming more apparent by the second. The article by Christian Kerr in today’s The Australian convinces me that my suspicions about Rudd’s agenda are becoming more accurate by the week.

  6. I’ve been annoyed that everyone pro-filter I have reached out to in a polite email form won’t even respond or engage in discussion.

    So far the only responses I have had are from my MP, with a generic form letter. The others just refuse to even read the email, I suspect.

  7. Great resonse and quick. Shame the publisher didn’t see fit to take public comments. This is the same crap he’s been spouting all over the place for the last 5 years. Percentages from a restricted phone survey with no independent assessment of the survey or the demographic group surveyed, no concrete evidence, and no academic research to support their ideas. Worse than that, he represents a group that is not representing large numbers of the Christian community. How do they get this coverage?

    On another note, this one http://www.news.com.au/technology/story/0,28348,24963394-5014239,00.html did permit comments.

    Full comment page: http://www.news.com.au/comments/0,23600,24963394-5014239,00.html

    A particularly interesting comment from
    Technology vendor guy of Melb 12:48pm today Comment 19 of 78

    This a vendor shill. We believe he posts in a number of other forums some info about his product here http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/forum-replies.cfm?t=1130067&p=20#r386

    Do these comments render html or is it only plain text?

  8. Well said Stilgherrian.

    As long as we keep shining a light on the bastards lies, we’ve got a chance to stop this lunacy.

  9. Geez all, perhaps you might like to note that the SMH led with the counter view first on Saturday as more reasoned blogs do.

    Plus the critique is still based on an assumption that something other than an index-based filter of only RC content is proposed.

    As to what the “optional filtering” might be, and whether that is “opt-in” or “opt-out”, that is where the policy focus really ought to be.

    By the way do you think the recent turmoil in the ALP in Victoria will be useful? The Right has split and Conroy is in the group that doesn’t include the NUW and the SDA – the allter aka the Shoppies led by de Bruin is the last vestige of a goog old fashioned Santamaria-esque Grouper union in the country. Maybe Conroy being free of them might improve his ability to enunciate his policy.

  10. @Verity Pravda: I didn’t link to Helen Razer’s piece previously because… well… I think she’s a complete wanker. I can expand on that should anyone wish.

    As I mention in another comment, Senator Conroy’s current plan is to filter “the ACMA blacklist”, which contains more than just RC material.

    I agree that we need to be discussing what this other stuff should be, or if there should be nothing more blocked at all — but the blacklist is secret and Conroy isn’t exactly forthcoming with what he means by “inappropriate” material.

    I haven’t had a chance to get my head around the Victorial ALP’s weekend implosion. However I thought that Conroy was himself part of the socially-conservative hard-right faction? I’m the first to admit I know little about ALP factional politics.

  11. @Gail In the poliitical sphere that survey would be labelled “push polling”. Every question is framed to include and present the negative consequences.

    A differently biased survey would start “Do you believe that graphical images that cannot be sold or distributed in Australia in any other form should be available to all over the Internet?”

  12. @Verity Pravda: Your question would be push polling, of course, because it mispresents the true nature of the ACMA blacklist. Imagery that’s rated, say, MA15+ is readily available offline — totally legally — in any newsagent. R18+ material is available with age verification. But online such material, if hosted overseas, can be placed on the ACMA blacklist because it’s not covered by an age-verification mechanism. Under the Conroy Plan, it would then be blocked for all Australians, secretly and unaccountably, even though it’s legal to view.

    I’d be happier if you stopped this misrepresentation of the blacklist as being only RC material. It’s not. As you said in Crikey yesterday, we may actually agree about blocking RC material — though it’s possible we may disagree about what should and shouldn’t be on that list.

    There’s no R18+ rating category for computer games, for example, so all such material is RC here.

  13. Oh stil…. Interesting discussion between Mark Newton and Jim Wallace on RN that I’ve blogged about. In it Mark and Jim had exactly the same dispute – but interestingly Jim was clear that as far as he was concerned the only mandatory filter would apply to RC content. So we know that would keep at least part of the Christian lobby happy.

    As for the no R18+ category for computer games, I think that debate needs to be won in the classification space, not by arguing that they should be OK in a different space.

    Finally, I did say my question was a “differently biased” one – I wasn’t claiming it was value neutral. But my question did not actually represent anything about the blacklist – it asked what it asked. I didn’t suggest you could conclude from the answer to that question that the blacklist should be blocked, only that the RC list should be blocked.

  14. @Verity Pravda: I heard only a small part of the Radio National piece this morning. I’ll listen to the podcast once it’s online. From what I did hear, it seemed like both Jim and Mark were presenting their cases politely and coherently.

    Jim Wallace is certainly extremely well-trained for media appearances: he stuck to his talking points and deflected any difficult questions with easy. My guess is that he’s been closely briefed. Tactically it’s good too. He can present Senator Conroy’s talking points without them being too closely identified with Conroy. If it all turns pear-shaped, Conroy can cut him loose. That may sound cynical, but that’s how the game is played.

    I agree that what is and isn’t RC needs a discussion — about computer games for one — and that’s a discussion about what is an isn’t acceptable for which age groups in the 21st Century.

    (As a preamble to that, I’d contend that young people are better prepared than they ever have been. They’re exposed to more and more sophisticated concepts earlier thanks to pervasive media. Some parents may see that as a threat. I reckon it allows the human mind to adapt rapidly to the modern world — doing what comes naturally.)

    On second reading, yes, I see you were intending to make that point about push polling. However, the first question in the Netscape poll had no preamble. It just asked whether people supported the policy. That question, at least, may well be untainted.

    The key issues does seem to be clarifying what the government intends to block. The official documents say “the ACMA blacklist”. But the unofficial ones like media releases, and the Senator’s shock troops like Jim Wallace, say “RC material” and bang on about child pornography. One of them is wrong. I say we watch what the documents say and discount (and deny) the speakers who differ from them.

  15. RC content is legal to possess and purchase in nearly all parts of Australia. The exceptions being WA and prescribed areas of the NT, and when the content is child pornography. However, it is illegal to sell RC content in Australia.

    It’s important to remind those new to the debate that not all RC content is child pornography, especially in terms of RC content online.

    With respect to ACMA decisions re online content, their 2007/2008 annual report shows the number of completed investigations in which prohibited or potentially prohibited content was located to be roughly 55% child pornography related. The rest are mainly websites containing ‘actual sexual activity’ (X 18+) material or depictions of ’sexual fantasy’ and ’sexual fetish’ (RC). The ‘rest’ of course being legal to possess and purchase.

    If ACMA is tasked with actively cleaning up the web and not just responding to complaints, the percentage of child pornography RC content Vs the percentage of non-child pornography RC content would differ greatly. As in, RC child pornography stats would be a small drop in the ocean compared to all the other RC content.

    Fiona Patten from Eros (assuming it’s not an impostor) points out on the ABC Radio National guest book ( http://www2b.abc.net.au/guestbookcentral/list.asp?guestbookID=359 ) that ‘There are literally millions of adult sites on the net now that have “prohibited content” that is legal in all other formats that will be filtered and blacklisted.’

    Whether they are filtered and blacklisted I expect will come down to man power and the system used, but in theory I agree.

    Also, some RC material like euthanasia instruction manuals go into gray areas depending on your purpose for possessing it.

    And of course, prohibited content consists of more than just RC content.

  16. I appreciate that most folk, very decently, take Mr Wallace at face value as a ‘Christian leader’.

    It’s hard to argue — after all, he is the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby and niether Jesus not Almighty God are commenting on the record.

    But a scan through the ACL website causes me to have some doubts. Do a search on ‘Gaza’, for example. Not much sympathy for the bombed Christians (or anyone else) in Gaza. None at all that I could find. It’s as though the Israeli Embassy plays an editorial role (I’m not suggesting that, God forbid!)

    Then there’s Jim background (going only on what’s publicly available), which I’ve discussed in a couple of articles on my blog.

    The ex-SAS Commander and ‘expert on anti-terrorism’ was quoted on Radio National back in 2003 ticking off other Christian leaders for not giving sufficient support to the Howard Government’s role in the invasion of Iraq.

    See Australia’s Holy Man likes a Good War for more. I think when we hear from Jim, we should not necessarily assume all Christians march loyally to his beat. Not all of Christ’s warriors have the same thorough military training.

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