Mandatory internet filtering. It’s not a debate.

I assume virtually everyone in the Australian IT industry has found themselves in some kind of discussion about the Australian government’s proposed mandatory internet filter. And most of us are opposed to it. But we have a little problem…

Why the government wants to filter the internet.

We don’t let kids play with explosives, we don’t want people giving drugs to our kids, we make people get a driver’s licence before letting people out on the road, we get cranky with people for breaking into our houses and stealing stuff, and we get very upset with people who make other people dead.

If you give explosives to children, illegal drugs to anybody, drive without a licence, steal stuff, or deadify other people, and you get caught, you get into lots of trouble and possibly go to jail. No $200 for you. We have people to do this job: the police.

We also have rules about what we let into the country. You’re not allowed to bring in illegal porn, drugs, objects that might contain bugs that will destroy our crops and trees. We have people to do this: Australian Customs.

Out there on the internet, it’s a big free-for-all. If you want it, you can find it; or to invoke Rule 34 – “If it exists, there is porn of it”. But the policing the internet isn’t quite as simple as policing the physical world, or stopping illegal stuff from coming across our physical borders.

So the government has decided that we need to be stopped from seeing the illegal stuff. And that’s one of the things we elected them to do. No, really.

See, most people want the government to make sure that there are systems in place to stop drug dealers, smugglers, thieves and murderers (and other “bad people”). We want laws that say “this is wrong, and if we catch you doing it (and we will try), these are the consequences”. Now, the government has said “Well, there’s all this stuff on the internet that’s illegal, and it’s our job to stop it. We said we would stop it, and now we will. Because we need to protect the children.”

The government’s proposed solution is a two-tiered filtering system. There’s an opt-out “Clean-feed” filter that blacklists adult material from your internet connection, stuff you don’t want your kids seeing. You don’t want to be filtered, you can opt out.

It’s the other mandatory tier that’s considered to be “the problem”.

Why We Don’t Want the Government to Filter the Internet.

There are several problems with the proposed filtering solution from the government.

  • It will slow down your internet connection.
  • It will incorrectly block websites that aren’t illegal.
  • It will only block web traffic, and not all the other different ways of getting illegal material from one person to another.
  • It will be reasonably easy for anyone vaguely technical to circumvent – like your teenager, or his technically savvy friend.
  • It’s a technical boondoggle that will consume millions of dollars better spent elsewhere.
  • It’s a technical solution to what is arguably a social problem
  • The blacklist will get out – and into the hands of the people you don’t want having a list of paedophilia websites.

Since this post isn’t about rehashing other people’s work, NoCleanFeed.com has one of the best resources for explaining these downsides of the filter, and other informative links.

I do want to draw your attention to that last point. One of the points that the opponents to the filter have focused on is that the blacklist will not be open to public scrutiny. Now, it should be obvious why that is – you don’t want certain people getting a hold of a list of pedophilia websites.

But what’s to stop the government from adding website addresses for sites that AREN’T illegal?

On the 18th of March, 2009 a supposed copy of the current ACMA blacklist was released to wikileaks.org. Senator Conroy’s press release blasted the irresponsibility of the individual(s) responsible for leaking the list, denied that it IS the ACMA blacklist, but admitted that there were sites in common between the two lists.

The blacklist contained links to “satanic”/”fringe” religious websites, euthanasia websites and hardcore porn websites. However, it ALSO had links to Christian websites, an anti-abortion website, a travel operator, and a dentist! Sucks if you’re the dentist who spent thousands of dollars on a website which no-one can see, and you have no idea why.

So what’s the problem?

There are whole bunch of good reasons why the filter is a “Bad Thing”. Unfortunately, many of those reasons range from technical to REALLY technical. And Senator Conroy is on the warpath, supposedly accusing opponents of the mandatory filter of being “supporters of child pornography” and spreading hysteria. There are people like Clive Hamilton (Professor of Public Ethics at the Australian National University) and Jim Wallace (Australian Christian Lobby) and numerous others who are backing up Senator Conroy and attacking the anti-filter opponents.

Unfortunately, the leaking of the blacklist plays right into their hands.

After being out most of the day, I jumped on Twitter this afternoon to find multiple people linking to copies of the blacklist. From wikileaks.org, copies were re-posted in multiple locations. I have no doubt that many anti-filter opponents have a copy that they can put up if the list disappears.

So I asked the question “Do people actually want to be providing a list of sites that almost definitely contain URLs linking to child porn?” Mark Pesce pointed out that attempting to stop it from happening is subject to the Streisand Effect – “attempting to censor a piece of information causes the information to be widely publicised”.

So, here we have a group of people on Twitter linking to, re-posting and discussing the blacklist. It doesn’t make Twitter bad, doesn’t make those people bad, doesn’t make the discussion wrong. However, it does give the pro-filter ammunition to “prove” their arguments about those opposed to the filter.

Expect to hear something like this from the pro-filter lobby in the next few days. “See, we were right! As soon as they got their hands on it, they spread it around! They couldn’t help but talk about it! They reposted it everywhere making it easy for the pedophiles and perverts to find! They’re pro-child pornography! They can’t be trusted!”

And how will we deny it? We can’t deny the actions. We did talk about. Some people did re-post it. And although we can state our motives were not those we’re accused of, how do we prove it?

I think the one of the biggest problems is that most of the push in the anti-filter opposition is technical. Mark Newton has written a great amount of excellent information as to what’s wrong with the filter, and has met with government representatives. People like Stilgherrian and Mark Pesce have demolished the arguments of Clive Hamilton, on more than one occasion. Mark Newton went head-to-head with Jim Wallace on ABC Radio National debating the filter. There are lots of very intelligent, thoughtful people repeatedly explaining why the filter won’t work.

Thousands of #nocleanfeed tagged Tweets have scrolled up people’s screens explaining why the filter is a very bad thing, and picking apart every piece of information related to the filter.

The fundamental problem is that we’re treating this like a debate, and the anti-filter opponents are playing the role of the negative team. In debating, the only job of the negative team is to demolish the argument of the affirmative team.

This is not a debate. This is not a referendum. The government is going ahead with trials, and are rumoured to be planning to institute the filter however they can. Those of us opposing the filter need to stop focusing on just demolishing the government’s arguments – we need to present a better solution than the one proposed.

There’s no good reason why the are thousands of highly intelligent individuals sitting behind computers screens shouldn’t be able to work together to create a detailed, workable alternative to the government’s so-called “solution”.

What do we do now?

A large part of the answer is education. But it’s NOT ENOUGH to just respond with “education” when asked what the answer is.

“We” understand this stuff. We understand why the filter won’t work. We understand that there are better ways of doing things.

But “they” don’t. The great “unwashed masses” who bought a computer from Harvey Norman on Flexirent, or saw a TV ad and called Dell so that their kids don’t get left behind. The parents who are literally scared of their PC. The users who can’t understand why the machine they bought a couple of months ago is completely clagged because it’s now riddled with spyware “…and what the hell IS spyware anyway?”

We can explain that the filter will slow down their internet – a lot of them won’t notice. We’ll tell them that some websites will get blocked incorrectly – they won’t care, as long as they can’t get to the websites they want, and after all, 1 in 10,000 isn’t that much of a worry.

Parents want to protect their kids, and that’s the line the government is pushing. The government is telling them “the filter will protect your kids. The people against it support child porn.” We know the government is twisting the facts, and lying outright where necessary.

What positive alternative solution are WE offering??

“Education.” How? Who? What? Are we just going to throw that one-word answer back, and leave it in the lap of the government? They don’t care! The Great Australian Child-proof Fence is WHAT WE GOT when we left it to the government to provide a solution.

“We” need to work out how we can educate the non-tech savvy. And it MUST be part of our anti-censorship strategy going forwards. We need to be able to say to the parents that are worried about what their kids are looking at “This is how you can monitor it. This is why you don’t need to be afraid of the computer.”

(And stop snickering at the “computer illiterate”, and snarking about how if they could afford to buy a computer, they should learn how to use it. There’s a long distance between the way we wish things were and the way they are. It doesn’t get any shorter by standing back and waxing lyrical over the fact that it’s there. Get out there and talk to some non-technical people. In the echo chamber of Twitter, it’s easy for us to all reinforce our arguments, but what are the non IT people thinking? How do they feel about it? Are they even aware of the proposal?? Odds on, they’re not.)

We need to propose and provide a solution that counters the government’s claims about what they’re trying to achieve, but also works in layman’s terms. We need to work together to not only say “education is the key” but “here is how you educate someone who’s afraid of their computer”.

Mark Pesce uses the term “Digital Citizenship”.

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.

Postscript: I got poked about not having an obvious link to my Twitter account.

  • Reasonable post, but your opening point misses an important aspect: the Government doesn’t just want to block “illegal” content, they want to block “unwanted” content as well (the word “unwanted” comes from Conroy.) As we’ve seen with the leaked list (false or otherwise) perfectly legal sites can and do get caught up, with no recourse or notification. Further, the definition of illegal is also thrown in to question, for example R rated material that you can buy in your local newsagents is banned online without strict age verification measures; so it’s illegal online, but legal offline. X rated stuff suffers likewise: legal to possess and buy (from the ACT and NT), but illegal under the filter.

  • Warwick

    @Duncan Riley. Good point – I touched on it, but I’ll edit and expand on that tonight.

  • Thanks for a really good post, and for pointing out that just arguing isn’t enough. I wish I’d been able to put my vague feeling into words like you have.

    I’ve quoted your list of arguments against the filter at http://hashdictionary.com/Nocleanfeed (an explanation of the #nocleanfeed tag) and I hope this is OK with you. If not, well, it’s a wiki, so feel free to remove it 🙂

    Thanks again.

    Lucas

  • Well done, Waz.

    It is so rare to see anyone who understands the technical issues and is a hard-core netizen also taking the responsibility of the government seriously, and someone who is not just saying claptrap like:

    “It is a parent’s responsibility to care for their kids.”

    I am so over that one-dimensional nonsense.

    I do hope your post here encourages a lot of lively and more in-depth conversation!

    -Alister

  • Some thoughts from a ‘technologist’ who is trying to apply non technologist thinking to this problem….

    1. I’m a Christian who believes abortion is a crime. A link to a pro abortion site, not even hosted in Australia, was the cause of a takedown noitice from the ACMA to whirpool. In short, this list is censoring anti abortion material. When the Coalition get it in will this entry in the list be replaced by a PRO abortion site ?

    2. We have sufficient proof from past behaviour that governments can not be trusted. If this IS a blacklist of illegal sites, what plans are in place to a) notify dentists and dog groomers that their sites are on the list, and b) what rights of appeal do they have ?

    3. IF a site is accused of hosting child pornography, should th’t the ‘world child pronography police’ (interpol etc) be chasing the owners of the site ?

    4. IF the technologists are telling the truth, the www component of the internet is a very small portion of the child pornography traffic. What percentage of Child Porn will the filter stop ?

    5. If the technologists are telling the truth, the filter will be impossible to police for technically literate people. Would the money be ing spent on the filter be better spent using more traditional policing methods to track down Child Pornographers ?

    6. and finally, I’m a parent. I do NOT trust the Government of the day to decide what my fam,ily and I will see. I will decide what my kids see on television, what movies they watch, what books they read and what they use the internet for.

  • You may wish to mention in your list that they are criminalising thought.

  • Bravehearts has a pretty good list of resources about online safety at http://www.bravehearts.org.au/internetsafety.ews and at http://www.bravehearts.org.au/internet_parents.ews

    (I heard something recently about Bravehearts being in favour of a filter but it didn’t sound like they thought it was the sole solution. I can’t find any official position statement on their site about mandatory filters or the technical side of how it works. Anyone got a link to anything official from Bravehearts?)

  • A very intelligent and well written article!

    You’ve made some very valid points.
    While in general I support nocleanfeed, I do think most people would agree with the overall blocking of child pornography and sites that encourage and facilitate terrorism.
    However… given that even with nocleanfeed the ACMA would still have a blacklist their approach to keeping it private is illogical.
    Since there is no way that the ACMA will be able to keep the blacklist private, surely it would be to better for them to focus on a technical solution that allows secure monitored access to the blacklist.
    With validated with ID credentials, and legitimate reasons to access the blacklist, not only would the public feel happier knowing the blacklist is able to be overseen, but the ACMA with the help of ASIO may also be able to identify potential unlawful individuals and threats to this country.

  • For us to offer an alternative solution, we’d have to agree on what the problem is.

    And maybe that’s possible, but something to bear in mind is that if they are engaged in censorship then THEY become the problem.

    On behalf of The Internet, I’d just like to say that having had a look at the list, we’ve no particular interest in visiting any of those sites – but we are categorically opposed to top-down control, particularly opaque top-down control, particularly opaque top-down control by institutions that are increasingly showing themselves to be incompetent anachronisms.

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  • Ken

    You may wish to make a correction. You say, “Jim Wallis”, but you mean “Jim Wallace”. I’m sure the “Jim Wallis” many more people are familiar with (see Wikipedia) would be rather offended to be likened to Wallace.

  • Paul

    Your article has one flaw…Are there any currently accessible illegal sites on the blacklist???

    What if there are no illegal sites on the list, what then??? Been reading statements from people who are saying that all the sites they have checked on that list either bring up 404 errors or link to completely legal although pornographic sites.

  • Warwick

    @Ken I’ve corrected Wallis to Wallace.

    Thanks for catching that. I’ve even got one of Jim Wallis’ books at home. Apologies if I offended anyone.

  • The problem with say offering an alternative of making the filtering optional is that then we have filter engines in place all over the country offering optional filtering.

    One small legislation change and BAM it’s mandatory, except this time, the infrastructures already in place.

    There is NO solution other than going back to the filtering on the PC side solution and/or education.

  • Asmo

    I’d ask why we have to come up with a solution…

    We are not invading their privacy or denying them access to anything.

    We are not flushing millions down the toilet on a scheme we know won’t work.

    We aren’t accusing them of being child porn supporters.

    There are plenty of filter products and a few (because they are mostly unsuccessful and fail) clean feed ISP’s. If a person is incapable of home filtering, they can buy a filtered feed…

    Your motivation is pure but your idea is made of the same stuff that Conroy’s are. “We must offer a solution to cater for the incapable”. Why?

    So we can legitimately enter this debate? Rubbish, we got that right when they started to dictate to us what we could do.

    So we can fritter away our rights piecemeal rather than a large bite at a time? Think back to Alston and the compromises made then that puts the government closer to it’s goal of censorship now (regardless of which party is running it).

    The absolute best I would be willing to even consider at this point is:

    -immediate reinstatement of the 2.8 million trimmed off the OCSET budget by Rudd’s razor gang.

    -an equipment subsidy to allow ISP’s to install cleanfeed gear voluntarily. The ISP would then be able to market cleanfeed plans without a large chunk of capital invested in equipment (meaning if they don’t get customers, they don’t lose as much cash). The ISP should have a contractual right to disconnect the system at any point in time that they want to and/or remove clean feed plans if they prove unprofitable.

    C’est fin.

  • Why stop at the Internet? When will they start censoring our phone calls and SMSes? I don’t buy the argument that “it’s OK because the government already bans and censors many things”

    Reminds me of Demolition Man, every time they swear, the fine spits out of the wall.

    In Australia we do not have the same rights of freedom of speech that the Americans claim from their constitution. This plan for an Internet filter further takes our country away from a free and open society, and is likely to be abused in the future for political ends.

    Filtering means tracking what sites everyone looks at – which is already done, this just makes it easier and gives a more clear-cut legal and technical framework for the government to do it.

    We know how much K-Rudd loves China, and they’re a big market for our minerals. But that doesn’t mean Australian society should become more like Chinese society, or that we should try to block sites on the Internet like they do.

    This is a step backward for Australia. Criminals will get around it, and find ways to get the content they want. Just like when I was 13, I somehow found a way to look at some X-rated content.

    We should use all the technology at our disposal to shut down the kiddie porn, hate sites, and how-to-make-a-bomb etc… at the source. Get it off the Internet by locking up the producers. A blanket filter imposed on everyone, will not stop these things in our society – in the same way that prohibition doesn’t stop consumption.

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  • >>> So the government has decided that we need to be stopped from seeing the illegal stuff. And that’s one of the things we elected them to do. No, really.

    Huh? We elected the ghovernment to govern well and wisely. At least, that’s what they said they do.

    The Rudd Government has no mandate for its proposed Internet censorship scheme. It slipped in under the radar. There was effectively no debate about this in the lead up to the last election.

    I agree with other folk who’ve commented that in order to devise a ‘solution’, the ‘problem’ must be clearly defined. What is ‘the problem’? It’s not clear to me that if you get any two proponents of censorship together they’d agree about that.

    That’s a problem… with censorship.

    Mr Bolt seems to want ‘jihadi sites banned’. Conroy says he only wants ‘the worst of the worst’ child porn banned. ACMA applies God knows what criteria – and whatever they are, does so incompetently. Jim Wallace would doubtless have another hit list. So would Hamilton.

    To say “we must solve the problem” is like saying, at the time of the Salem witch trials, that if you don’t like putting witches on trial, come up with another ‘solution’.

    As we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, the solution was to stop inventing witches.

  • Matthew

    Syd’s hit this one on the head. What exactly is the problem we are trying to solve? Is there actually a problem in the first place? Why is it now that we need this solution where for the last decade or more we have ignored “the problem(s)”? Secondly we don’t have to provide any solutions to perceived or real problems as the solutions already exist such as PC filters and companies that provide ISP level filtering. This has been reiterated over and over again by those opposed to censorship. Thirdly, someone made mention that the parents should take more responsibility line is not an answer. Sorry, but that’s what being a parent is all about; parenting. It’s rather easy to move the computer into the lounge room where you can see it and stick a password on it so the kids can only use it when you want them too. And as for being computer literate, people can learn, however it is up to them to get off their arses and do it, just like I had to. Ignorance and laziness is no excuse really.

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  • jackalopekid

    totally agree. its something trying to stop the problem, but not a solution to the problem. clean looking blog too btw. catch ya on twitter