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?