What now for Senator Conroy and the Magic Filter?

Photograph of Senator Stephen Conroy

After Senator Stephen Conroy’s disastrous week last week — the ACMA blacklist of banned Internet content leaked and shown to be rubbish, the Classification Board’s website hacked and his damagingly poor performance on Q&A — what next? And what’s Conroy’s exit strategy?

Last month, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam wondered how we can move beyond criticism of the highly-flawed Internet filtering plan:

We’re all in vociferous agreement about what won’t work. But what will? Can this enormously empowered campaign speak with one cogent voice about what we’re for?

How do we empower parents to make the best choices for their families, and law enforcement agencies to prosecute the creators and distributors of the worst material trafficked over the internet?

Is there a way to adequately prepare children to understand other threats such as cyber-bullying, without asphyxiating the greatest information sharing tool in history?

Can we directly challenge the epidemic of sexualised violence against women and children in this country and place the online tip of the iceberg into its proper context?

All very good questions. And as Warwick Rendell points out, this isn’t just an abstract debate.

In a well-written and well-worth-reading essay, Rendell says we — that is the people tearing apart the stupidity of the Rabbit-Proof Firewall — need to do something constructive.

Even if we manage to stop the Great Australian Child-proof Fence this time, if we don’t find a way to put our knowledge into layman’s terms, draw the non-computer savvy up to meet in the middle, and teach “digital citizenship”, then a solution will be imposed on us.

In summary: The pro-filter lobby are offering a solution to the “problem”. It’s not enough for the anti-censorship campaign to demolish their argument — if we don’t start offering an alternative workable solution as part of our strategy, we will ultimately fail.

So my questions for you today are:

  1. What solutions can we offer to the key problems — solutions which are practical economically, technically (if they have a technical aspect) and politically?
  2. How can Senator Conroy manoeuvre himself out of his current position politically while still retaining his personal political credibility and that of the Labor Party?
  3. How is all this presented to Family First and the others who saw Magic Internet Filtering as he solution to their problems?

We also need to be very clear that we’re addressing three separate problems — problems which get conflated because they’re both about “protecting the children”, but which are really very different in nature.

  1. Preventing the production and dissemination of child abuse material such as child pornography.
  2. Preventing children accessing information which, in the view of their parents, is inappropriate for their age.
  3. Preventing bullying.

What are you suggestions?

26 Replies to “What now for Senator Conroy and the Magic Filter?”

    1. Education is the key. Explain to people why the household PC should be in a public location, and children need to be supervised.
    2. “Filtering doesn’t work” is the only face saving out he has now, since he’s managed to close off all other avenues.
    3. Subsidise ISPs that offer user-configurable ISP-level filtering as an option, like WebShield, so that they cost the same as unfiltered ISPs.

    [Stilgherrian notes: For some reason this comment was snarfed by the spam filter and I only discovered and published it in the evening of 1 April. Sorry, Simon.]

  1. I think the other aspect that needs to be considered in the political analysis of all this is — how much is Rudd actually driving the policy behind the scenes?

    Is it possible that Conroy is against the filter, but his adored leader has instructed him that he must defend it no matter what.

    Part of Rudd’s last election win was sucking up to the religious groups, who are no doubt generally supportive of filtering.

  2. His exit strategy may come down to STFU both personally and for his department, meaning no further discussion will be entered into. Especially likely if all EFA are doing is behaving like a bunch of unconstructive 4chan dickheads taking only the hardest and most extreme view and reacting with hysteria veiled with aggression.

    Unhelpful charges of fascism and throwing about silly threats a la Anonymous and quipping about 1984 will only validate his closing ranks in the eyes of the less internet savvy mainstream.

  3. Blindfold the children until they’re of age — gee, I’d like to be practical, but with the parents refusing to take any responsibility for their children on any level, wtf else are we going to do?

  4. Can you really unscramble a culture war once you’re testing the recipe with a broken egg?

    He could start by reinstating the money he took from the AFP’s taskforce on pedophiles to use on the filter, and then for good measure double the total funding again.

    In terms of political solution, a compromise might be ratifying in law the industry code that says that ISPs must offer the option of a clean feed for kiddies; most do already, and I have no issues with an optional filter per se, even if we know that they don’t provide 100% protection. That should be the pitch to Family First and the religious groups: yes, we want kiddies to be safe, so we’re going to give parents a choice at ISP level if they want it (it also covers the Howard Gov strategy failed line). This should be accompanied with an education campaign. Be alert, but not alarmed…. 🙂

    I’m not sure there is an out for Conroy, unless the results of the trials are so bad that he has no choice but to abandon the policy. It seems to me that despite the pressure, Conroy (presumably backed by the God loving Rudd) is hell bent on doing this. The only way now to stop this is to remove them from Government, or at the very least, Conroy, so the Government gets the message.

    As for bullying, I don’t want to down play it too much because it is a real problem, but it’s no where nearly as bad as the media reports. Schoolyard bullying, which rarely makes headlines is a far more prevalent problem, and in some cases more serious (would you rather be cyber bullied or have the shit beaten out of your in the playground?) The strategy for cyber bullying should and must be incorporated into general bullying prevention programs which the Government funds.

  5. @James: As I’ve said in various places, Kevin Rudd’s management style is supposedly even more centralised and control-freaky that John Howard’s. By all accounts, he’s ordered Conroy to soldier on. It does appear that the preference deals and Senate votes are all-important — and certainly more important than Conroy himself.

    Plus I can’t imagine there’s much love lost between Rudd and Conroy. Some have speculated that this is the chance or excuse to get rid of him.

    Journalist Asher Moses just tweeted:

    I think what everyone’s counting on is he’ll wait till the end of the trials and then announce the policy is unworkable.

    But this issue won’t stay quiet until then. In the old days of TV, a story could fall out of the “top seven” and be forgotten. Today, we can keep track of everything. Every time Conroy emerges, he’ll b asked why the trials continues when we’ve already told him they’re a waste of time. When the report comes back, even if he does say “Oh, the filter still doesn’t work”, his opponents will be ready to say “Yes, we know, we told you that before you wasted the taxpayers’ money!”

    @Annette: “EFA… is behaving like a bunch of unconstructive 4chan dickheads”? Really? I’d thought Electronic Frontiers Australia and their spokesperson Colin Jacobs had been at the “reasoned debate” end of the spectrum. They’re certainly more polite than I am.

    A quick search of EFA’s website reveals no uses of the words “Nazi”, “fascist” or “fascism” in the context of the Internet censorship debate. Maybe your mis-attributing someone else’s comments to EFA?

    @Duncan Riley: I do think that a refinement of the Howard government’s policies might be the way to go. As we’ve said many times before, the Internet Industry Association already has their Family Friendly program to address parental concerns.

    If parents are concerned, the tools are already there for them.

    If we’re talking about dealing with the pedophiles, then — and I’m starting to get sick of repeating the obvious — we should better equip the police to go after them. And, I daresay, we should provide some way to help people who have the potential to become pedophiles — though I don’t know even where to begin addressing that.

    1. Sorry you’re right. EFA isn’t responsible for those words but vocal people on their side of the debate are. I’m still mightily miffed at the immaturity of some of the questions asked on QandA last week.

      I have been on the net since 1997 and while it has opened up my world and I’ve made incredible friends through it, it also put me in contact with some men who like to sleep with underaged girls.

      There seems to be a skirting of that issue by those who oppose the filter and it does the side no good to pretend that pedophilia and sexual predators don’t exist.

      Normally I’m not a “law and order” conservative but I am on this issue. IMAO the general public would be less afraid of peds and rapists on the internet if they believed that they would be dealt with satisfactorily by the courts in the real world. The courts are out of touch and the police are not empowered to pursue cases. Quite obviously this is not happening as we can see with hard-core peds being driven out of towns they are found to have been settled in.

      I’ve seen too many people lose decades of their lives to the misery inflicted by pedophiles not to care passionately about this issue and it pisses me off no end to hear people laugh it off or use it as a political football.

  6. With regard to the three questions (particularly the last two), has this ever been accomplished offline, let alone online?

    The whole debate seems to center around how bad the internet is and won’t we please think of the children, but these issues are bigger than the net and they’ve been around for a very long time. Bullying, in particular, is just a case of an old problem finding a new outlet. People probably started to use the telephone to bully others when it became mainstream too.

    Just using the internet as a whipping boy while avoiding the real issues is unnecessarily futile, divisive and frustrating. How about we keep our eyes on the real ball instead?

  7. I’m not convinced that the problem 2 & 3 are any responsibility of the Government. I think providing a (useless) optional clean feed is fine, but I don’t think I’d go so far as to make it compulsory for the ISPs (although they could just use OpenDNS to make it simple). I think Duncan’s got it right, the Government seems to be totally commited to this filter. It could all be a political ruse for the support of the fundies, but if it is, I’d like to suggest Conroy get nominated for an Emmy for his performance.

    This filter won’t work, it damages internet speeds, treats adults like children and worst of all does absolutely nothing to prevent the abuse of children (less than nothing actually, as Duncan pointed out, they reduced the AFP budget to fund this thing). This is one God loving fundie who would like nothing more than to see this policy die.

  8. Isn’t it a whole lot of fluff? Kids are watching more violence & adultish* stuff than Boomers or Gen X did. But it’s the boomers, particularly the conservative & Christian ones, that have led us into mass immoral acts like war crimes. Kids seem to be the smart, peaceful ones. Step up the AFP by all means, but parents are doing great jobs and we don’t have to give energy to inflated Christian bullshit. Truth be known, more kids (10,000s) have got it harder through poverty, rental stress on families and more prone to all sorts of risks as a consequence. Start there, wealthy nation. @terrortv

  9. Hi Stil.

    I’ve had a “Part 2” post brewing in response to some emails that have been sent to me over the past couple of weeks, but really, you and Duncan have pretty much covered everything I was going to add.

    Mark Pesce pointed out to me that I’d made a jump in my post that didn’t make any sense, and when I went back, I’d left out a couple of paragraphs that Duncan has essentially covered in his reply to your post.

    “He could start by reinstating the money he took from the AFP’s taskforce on pedophiles to use on the filter, and then for good measure double the total funding again.”

    I was pondering the education issue on the way to work this morning, after a commenter pointed out that “parents should take the time learn to understand computers, because [he] did”. That’s good for him, but most parents are non-technical and are spending their time trying to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

    The time to spend hours upon hours learning the ins and outs of a complex machine so that they can try and protect their kids is something that is more than likely out of reach of most parents. That’s before even dealing with whether they’re capable of understanding it — because let’s face it, some people just don’t “get” technology.

    Take the average driver. The majority of people know how to get into their car, and drive it. They know how to put fuel in the tank, and air in the tyres. All the technology between the ignition and the exhaust pipe is abstracted into a user interface that they can understand. It still requires education, but they don’t need to be a mechanic to drive their car.

    However, I’m getting feedback, and reading blog posts and random sprays from people that are in effect saying “Parents should become IT people if they want to have a computer in their house”.

    It’s bloody ridiculous, and unworkable to expect a majority of parents to be able to do this. Hell, I *am* in IT, and I still get surprised by my kids from time to time.

    Try this:

    • The optional clean feed for children is a good idea, as Duncan mentioned.
    • A good quality, solid and elegant PC/network based filtering system, perhaps subsidised or free.
    • A subsidised or free set of coupons to have an IT person (preferably one with a Cert IV in workplace training, or at least the ability to communicate in layman’s terms) come into the home for half an hour a week over a few weeks to show the parents how to install, and monitor their filtering system and computer.
    • A marketing campaign to back the whole damn idea up. I wasn’t even aware of the previous system until the anti-censorship discussion mentioned that they’d had one available and taken it away.

    I don’t know if it’s workable, but I think it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.


  10. Great post.

    I think it isn’t totally clear what the “problem” is — the list above is actually goals, or ways to resolve a problem. I think maybe the central problem is that children have access to an environment where illegal and offensive activity proliferates.

    I state it like this because the internet itself is not the problem — it’s just an environment that contains problems. I don’t think Warwick is right in drawing analogies to the purchase of explosives because the internet doesn’t blow people up; nor does it have sex with children — it provides information about those things, and while information is extremely powerful, it isn’t the same as the thing itself.

    I don’t think there is any magic bullet way of dealing with children roaming this environment, any more than there is a magic bullet way of dealing with kids encountering drug dealers, or schoolyard bullies, or elder siblings’ porn mags. It might sound like a broken record to hammer on about education, but I really believe it is the most effective solution.

    Having said that, I think the key here is that teachers and parents need to understand their kids online environment. A large part of why this is so ultra-scary is that parents don’t feel at all at home in it. A wide-scale children and the internet initiative that focused on making these things familiar to parents would help, in the same way that huge “stranger danger” campaigns were very much a part of my childhood, and my friends and I all had “safe words” and stuff. This could include material sent to all homes, free commonwealth-funded workshops and seminars for parents; and good easy fact sheets about various sites and software like NetNanny.

    There is a lot that could be done in the area of schooling. Teachers are woefully un-net-savvy, in my experience, and 6 hours of contact teaching a day doesn’t do anything to remedy that. Along with the technology for the “education revolution” some teacher training and time to experiment needs to be built in.

    I do think there is an issue about the emphasis of the No Clean Feed campaign. Sometimes it feels like the only message coming out is “the internet is inherently unsafe and we think that is great”. Along with emphasising what parents and schools can do to make it useful, some emphasis on the amazing world of resources available for students/teenagers on the net would be great too.

    I think the production of child porn (and for that matter, other depictions of assault and exploitation) is a slightly separate issue. It seems to me it is less an issue of stopping this stuff from being visible than of stopping it being made at all. An easy reporting system — and maybe there is a technical solution here — combined with serious resources towards international policing collaborations seems to be more effective than trying to filter it out. Maybe some of the world’s skilled hackers could help quickly identify the original source, and international agreements could mean fast prosecution? (I have no idea really, I’m out of my depth. But it seems to me one upside of having the stuff visible is utilising more resources to track the bastards down).

  11. @Annette: “Unhelpful charges of fascism.” Have you even once read a history book? Censorship is ALWAYS the hallmark of totalitarian regimes, fascist regimes among them.

    Conroy says that he won’t censor political sites, and yet he stands behind the decision to block the abortion site. The policy is we won’t block political sites for being political, but we’ll find another way to block them none the less.

    This is double speak that fascist Governments are legendary for. Nazi Germany never censored material from other political parties for being political, they censored it for being among other things “degenerate” or “a threat to state security,” both criteria that actually describe censorship under the Rudd Government.

    1. @Duncan
      My comment was made in relation to how the No Clean Feed side is percieved by others and how Conroy might use that to justify closing discussion.

      Double speak is a problem. When the meaning of “degenerate” or “threat to security” expands of course it needs to be argued over vigorously every single time. That’s good for democracy. When arguing itself starts to feel dangerous that’s when we know we’ve got trouble.

      It would be helpful if these terms were clearly defined so we know when the covert fascists are sticking in the thin edge of the wedge.

      However labelling proposals as “fascist” too early on marks the speaker out as someone who sees things in either black or white, mindlessly follows ideology and doesn’t listen to the details of the argument. It doesn’t have to be true, it’s just the perception.

  12. Just another comment, on Warwick’s post this time, the problem I have with a solution which entirely revolves around filters is that a “good quality, solid and elegant PC/network based filtering system” just doesn’t exist. And wanting it isn’t going to dream it into existence. Sure, it’d be great if there was a piece of software you could program with your personal definition of “offensive” or “unsuitable” and load it up on your PC, and child’s mobile phone, but there are real barriers to that, and it’s not coming any time soon.

    A technical solution that might be worth exploring is developing a proxy or a tool which could accurately record the sites visited and spit out a meaningful report for a parent monthly. It’d still be next to impossible for this to be teenager-proof however, and it would probably give a few false positives from sites that send a million links when you go anywhere near them.

    But accepting that technical solutions don’t really work isn’t the same as blaming parents. I agree that most parents aren’t in a position to suddenly develop awesome MySpace and Twitter skills. But help understanding those issues, and how to manage them, is a better use of resources than installing false technical safeguards.

  13. @Warwick,

    I don’t think it’s necessarily an all-out call for parents to become “IT Professionals”. There are simple PC-based filters which are no harder to install than the average piece of Windows software and no harder to keep up-to-date than standard anti-virus software (analogous to putting petrol in the car). PC retailers could also use the marketing opportunity — “comes with [insert filtering software here] pre-installed!”

    In fact, the Howard government had such filters available for download. Rudd has shut this down, citing a lack of use (which suggests that any filter is neither wanted nor needed).

    Combined with the idea of optional ISP-level filtering (which no-one to my knowledge has criticised) and a decent helpdesk at the ISPs to help parents configure anything and it should all be fine.

    If the kids are savvy enough to circumvent the filter then they’re probably old enough to understand the dangers…

  14. 1. (Assuming we think there is a problem) how do we solve it?

    “ISP clean feed,
    Parents may opt in to it
    All schools will have it.”

    2. How does he get out of it while saving face?

    “The data showed that
    Child porn is stopped by police
    We’ll fund them instead”

    3. How does he present it to groups with strong religious views?

    “Your kids get filtered;
    Police catch bad predators
    Cherry blossoms fall.”

    To be honest though I think this is ideological warfare. The idea of a forum for ideas and alternative lifestyles to be explored, debated and discussed freely is anathema to the narrow religious minority.

    Probably 90% of those who don’t fall into that camp probably couldn’t care less; they don’t have any interest in the non-mainstream, might ‘know’ that Bill Henson is a ‘child pornographer’ (having read the Sunday Telegraph), but probably would have no idea who Mapplethorpe was or why he was important or the censorship debates that raged around his works at the time; wouldn’t know that even the right to political free speech had to be read into our constitution by the High Court; wouldn’t know or care that there was an attempt to have the Communist Party banned or why the current political powers being able to choose what is allowed to be discussed and what is ‘prohibited’ is a terrible thing… and those 90% have delegated to the Labor Party, and kept KRudd’s approval rating at a point where he feels able to pursue his (or Conroy’s, or both — I’m really not sure at this point?) religious ideology forward.

  15. @Alison. I understand. I guess the point I was trying to make in my original post and here is that some thought needs to be applied by those of us who can, to start pushing in that direction. There are a lot of very intelligent people involved in trying to stop the firewall. If some of that intelligence was aimed in the direction of making something like that happen, I think it’s heading in a direction to be able to answer the “What about the children” ‘question’.

    @MattR A lot of people “get” that, but I’ve encountered a few very loud, very strident voices who really think that any person who wants to use a computer should be able to diagnose their own issues, and understand the underlying technology. The same people also seem incapable of accepting that someone wouldn’t want to know (or can’t grasp) the ins and outs of the technology, and they’ll happily demean anyone they feel is “too stupid” to own a computer. I don’t think it’s a helpful attitude to have, in the context of the conversation about filtering (or at all…).

  16. I won’t respond to everyone individually. The repetition would be… repetitious. Instead, I see some key themes emerging.

    1. There’s still some debate over how much of all this, if any, is “the government’s” job. That there are problems, or perceived problems, which society needs to solve is clear — even if it’s only to overcome the unreasonable fears of some parents. That said, there are bad guys out there, and we do expect the government to fund policing and prosecution online just as anywhere else.
    2. There’s a very real fear that the government hasn’t adequately defined what is and isn’t “appropriate for children”, and a fear that the rules will be defined by a small but vocal and politically-organised conservative Christian minority.
    3. Some of the opponents of mandatory Internet filtering are unhelpful, or at the very least politically naive. As I said on Twitter this afternoon, “I’m appalled by the politically naivety and ignorance of many folks using the #nocleanfeed tag. “RTFM” in politics, too.” Some are as selfish and dogmatic as the straw-man “Luddite conservative Christians” they imagine.
    4. The folks who say that dumb people shouldn’t be allowed to have a computer and other arrogant claptrap are also unhelpful. To refine the analogy with a car, you certainly don’t need to be a mechanic or an auto electrician to get a driver’s license, but you do need to know the basics as a car owner. In my imagining of the analogy, installing new software is equivalent to changing a tyre: most drivers could do it, but they may choose to get an expert in because they don’t want to make a mistake. I see the routine maintenance of that software as akin to knowing to fill the fuel tank when the gauge nears “E”. I’ve said elsewhere that I see the inability of “ordinary computer users” to do these things as a failure of the computer industry, not a failure of the user. But that said, I also think people do need to at least try to come to grips with the changes in the world around them.

    I’ll probably write further in the morning, as these thoughts will be informing a piece for Crikey.

    @Brillat: Actually you do get special mention. Commenting in Haiku is pretty special.

  17. Re: Cyberbullying, I’m not sure if this has been pointed out, but the important part of that word is bullying not cyber.

    There are tons of well-researched and practical methods of preventing bullying yet parents, teachers, politicians and police are freaking out because it’s expressing itself using a new communications medium.

    The internet, phones, email, pictures, etc are all tools that speed up communication (meaning such bullying can occur faster), but most of the bully/victim/bystander roles remain unchanged.

    A lot of children and young people rely more on technology to perform their communication, but it doesn’t change how, or why, bullying occurs or can be prevented.

    Treat the “cyber” aspect as another symptom or tool of bullying, not as a separate problem.

  18. No time to write a really considered answer (a hefty budget and a team of experts would help too), but a good start would be to give parents and children a realistic understanding of the problem, rather than creating a huge moral panic about children stumbling across the hardcore pornography that is supposedly lurking around every corner. Expecting everyone to understand complicated ideas of IT security is unrealistic. Giving parents enough of a working knowledge that they can talk to their kids about their browsing habits, and appreciate the positive side of the internet as well; and educating children about the danger signals and simple things they can do to protect themselves online is less so. I thought that series of ads that ran on TV a while ago, warning people about the ease with which people can create false online identities was a good start.

    Awareness of internet predators could also be incorporated into a wider sex-education programme. Would people rather that their children found out about sex in a way that helped them to understand their own and other peoples’ sexuality, and therefore recognise inappropriate behaviour, or that they found about it when they are experiencing inappropriate behaviour. Children aren’t pets or little dolls. The are people who need to be guided towards adulthood, and if you brought them into this world, by accident or design, it’s your responsibility to help them to make good decisions. Of course, parents could do with a bit of help from the government, and perhaps the rest of us, in figuring out how to do this. I don’t have kids myself, but I don’t imagine that parenting is easy.

    With regard to how to stem the proliferation of child abuse material, I’m with Duncan on the idea of giving the AFP more funding. The creators of child abuse material are, by necessity, cunning. I think the only way to control the problem is to try to stay one step ahead of them. More funding for child protection services would probably be a good idea too.

    And if we want to enjoy the internet and its freedom, we all have a responsibility as individuals to be good ‘netizens’.

    There’s no ‘silver bullet’ that is going to solve the problems which you outlined. They are complex problems which require complex solutions.

    As for Senator Conroy: What credibilty?

  19. “2.) How can Senator Conroy manoeuvre himself out of his current position politically while still retaining his personal political credibility and that of the Labor Party?”
    I know this would help us towards putting an end to this joke of a policy, but I wouldn’t even piss on Conroy if he was on fire, let alone help him out of this hole he has dug.

    Not after his past and present form…


    We need to remove the hopelessly incompetent/Ignorant Politicians/State Attorney Generals who have a say over the Technological future of this country that they know nothing about and seem to refuse to budge on areas they don’t even understand.

    For years we’ve had hopelessly unqualified leaders in this area and look at the mess we’re in… It’s unacceptable.

  20. Here is a suggestion for a constructive effort to channel the skills, energy and enthusiasm of us geeks who are doing a lot of ‘whingeing against the stupidity of Conroy’s magic filter’ – let’s find ways to work together to help the AFP and others track down the sources of illegal content.

    Just thinking out loud…

    Don’t want to see vigilante action.
    Beginning to empathise with the Senator – our arrogant geeky whining must get right up his nose.


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