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Since Friday’s Crikey story about the leaked blacklist — which Senator Stephen Conroy denied was the actual ACMA blacklist of banned Internet content — there have been further leaks. And two more Crikey stories.

Monday’s piece was Yet another ACMA internet blacklist springs a leak. I explain how the leak unfolded, and how Wikileaks published instructions for extracting the cunningly-named file Websites_ACMA.txt from a certain brand of Internet filtering software — one of the Internet Industry Association’s Family Friendly Filters and one of those provided free to (a few) Australian families by the Howard government’s now-defunct NetAlert scheme.

I also run through Wikileak’s’s legal threats, and Senator Conroy’s latest spin — that the government never intended to block all of the ACMA blacklist, just the “Refused Classification” items. It’s a shame that doesn’t match a list of seven public statements about what’s planned to be blocked.

Tuesday’s was It certainly looks like the ACMA blacklist, eh Senator Conroy?. There’s further evidence that the most recent leaked list is, almost certainly, the actual ACMA blacklist. I also look at Senator Nick Minchin’s daft attempt to portray Conroy as Big Brother over a perfectly ordinary-looking government tender for media monitoring service.

Last night Sydney radio station 2SER‘s science program Diffusion broadcast an interview with me about the Australian government’s plans for Internet censorship. It’s available as a podcast and MP3 download.

18 November 2008 by Stilgherrian | No comments

Mark Newton, the network engineer who Senator Conroy’s office tried to bully, has written to his local member Kate Ellis MP detailing his criticism of both the Internet censorship plans and Conroy’s behaviour — and calling for a detailed response.

The PDF of the full letter has all the references, but I’ve reproduced the main text below — verbatim, except for minor changes to suit my own typographical and linking preferences.

One important figure which was “hidden” in a footnote….

When translated into the network traffic handled by a medium-sized ISP, the 3% false-positive rate of the most accurate filter tested corresponds to more than 3000 “bad blocks” per second.

Imagine the bureaucracy you’d need to undo all that damage to legitimate Internet traffic!

Imagine if your business or your family’s holiday photos were being blocked and you had to “prove” to the government that you’re not a child pornographer — because that’s how Senator Conroy is characterising you!

Here then, The Letter… it had been released into the public domain, so spread it wide! (So to speak. Sorry, Senators.)

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[This article was first published in Crikey yesterday. I’ve added some follow-up comments at the end.]

Let’s sing along with Senator Conroy! You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative…

[On Monday] our Minister for Broadband was “encouraged” that lab tests of ISP-level Internet filters showed “significant progress” since 2005, and The Australian had him declaring the trial a success. But if you actually dig into the full report [2.8MB PDF] things aren’t so rosy.

Yes, on average filters might be more accurate than three years ago and have less impact on Internet speeds — well, at least for the six filters actually tested of the 26 put forward. But it’s about them being not quite as crap as before.

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Yesterday I heard that the Enex TestLab report on the Australia’s Internet filtering trial has been delivered on schedule.

A spokesman for the minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, confirmed that saying, “I can confirm that the Australian Communications and Media Authority has provided the Minister with a report on its trial of internet filtering technologies. The Government will consider the report and comment in due course.”

So, will the report be released?

Yesterday I suggested, “It’s a govt report. If results are what’s needed politically, we’ll get a summary. If not, we’ll never hear anything again… This is called responsible government, and what Kevin Rudd thinks is a new era of transparency and evidence-based policy. Bah!”

That is all… for now.

Photograph of computer monitor overlaid with CENSORED

Internet lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has expressed “disappointment” at the government’s decision to fund the “clean feed” Internet plan in this week’s budget. They’ve also launched a campaign website at nocleanfeed.com.

“At a time when the Government is cutting services to fight inflation, it’s bewildering that they would decide to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a filter before feasibility trials are even complete,” said EFA spokesman Colin Jacobs…

“Australians are very uncomfortable with the idea of having the Government decide what’s appropriate for them and their families,” said Jacobs. “In fact, in a survey of 18,000 Internet users, only 13% agreed with the policy. That’s why we feel it is a shame, when the Government has identified real needs for better education and policing, that their approach to Internet policy is so skewed towards the filter initiative. There are greater risks to Australian children online, and real steps can be taken to mitigate these risks. That’s where the funding should be going.”

Unfortunately EFA made a fundamental mistake which could allow critics to dismiss their arguments. They talk about the Cyber-safety Plan costing $24.3m this financial year and rising to $51.4m next. However only part of this is for Internet filtering. There’s also things which critics could say EFA would support: AFP investigations and plenty of education programs.

The vagueness of the Labor government’s planned kid-friendly “clean feed” Internet become a tiny bit less vague last night. The Federal Budget dumped Howard’s NetAlert scheme and replaced it with a $125.8 million Cyber-safety Plan.

Budget Paper No. 2 says there’ll be “a range of initiatives to combat online threats and protect children from inappropriate material on the internet.” There will be ISP-level filtering of “an expanded Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist” — which presumably means the already-illegal material such as child pornography — plus an “examination of options to allow families to exclude other unwanted content”.

To me, this implies that families will be in control of their Internet filtering, and it’ll be opt-in. As it should be. Presumably this will become clearer once the “options” are “examined”.

The plan includes other measures “such as”:

  • an education program for teachers and the community
  • a Youth Advisory Group to assist the Government to formulate age-appropriate measures to
    protect children
  • an expanded Consultative Working Group focussed on cyber-safety issues,
  • a dedicated website for children
  • research projects on cyber-safety issues

ISPs will get a one-off subsidy in 2009-10 to install the filters, with funding in following years only for new providers. The Australian Federal Police and the Director of Public Prosecutions continue to get their funding to combat child sexual exploitation. Again, as they should.

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Joy (I think). I’m part of Crikey‘s commentary team for Australia’s 2008 Federal Budget to be announced tonight at 7.30pm Sydney time. It’s the first budget for Chairman Rudd’s Labor government, and the first for treasurer Wayne Swan, so it’s bound to interesting.

My role — at least as I understand it, ‘cos I haven’t actually spoken with my editor yet — is to look at it from a geek perspective. That’ll include, I imagine, issues I’ve previously covered for Crikey: Internet censorship, the ABC’s move into Internet TV, social media, the national broadband network…

But what else should I look out for?

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One book on my to-buy list is the recently-released The Porn Report by Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby. Until I get around to that, Danny Yee’s review has some juicy tidbits (ooherr).

[T]he common stereotypes are wrong: unsurprisingly, given that pornography users make up about a third of Australian adults, they are fairly representative of the broader population, with the major exception being that fewer than one in five of the respondents were women…

Detailed analysis of the most popular Australian DVD titles shows that, even with broad definitions, fewer than 2% of scenes have any kind of violence. The total ban on violence in the Australian X-rated category seems to have worked. Another finding was that “pornography does not really objectify women more than men… On some measures, men are the more active sexual subjects… on others, it’s the women.” The Internet is a lot more diverse, but despite extensive efforts the authors managed to find not a single site with actual rape photographs, and only a handful of sites with faked ones.

There is no evidence that pornography causes harm to its users: the studies that suggest this have involved pushing pornography on non-users in artificial laboratory experiments. In contrast, there has been almost no attempts to study the beneficial effects of pornography, even though consumers overwhelmingly report positive effects…

Part 2 of the book covers issues such as censorship, and notes:

“Protecting the children” has been a rallying call for censorship for a long time. It turns out that actual child pornography — the police prefer to call it “child abuse material” — is extremely hard to find. And evidence-based education has to be central to protecting children from harm, whether from cyberstalking or contact with material they will find disturbing.

Essential reading, I’d have thought, for anyone wanting to discuss censorship of the Internet, eh Senator Conroy?

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The ALP’s grand vision of a “clean feed” Internet safe for Aussie kids is meant to filter out — what, exactly? Labor’s pre-election policy [PDF file] seemed to give the proposed ISP-level filters wide scope indeed, blocking content “inappropriate” or “harmful” for children — however that’s defined. But evidence given to Senate estimates last night suggests it’s little more than what’s already in place.

As I’ve written in Crikey before [1, 2] debate is clouded because sometimes people talk about Internet filtering in terms of child pornography and other very-illegal “prohibited content”, and other times it’s about material as wide-ranging as websites promoting anorexia as a lifestyle choice.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy hasn’t helped by labelling free speech advocates watchers of kiddie porn.

Last night Senator Conroy confirmed that the trial of ISP-level filtering is on schedule. The contract has been issued; the report’s due back on 30 June. But what’s actually being filtered, beyond ACMA’s existing blacklist of about 800 URLs of “prohibited content”? No-one knows. A Ms O’Loughlin from ACMA told us they “haven’t completed discussions” with the Minister’s office about that.

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