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, 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 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, 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.

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