Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Finally, a politician who has a clue

I have to say, up until recently, I didn't have very much time for Senator Nick Minchin, representing as he does the decapitated rump of the Howard Liberal party.

But, boy, the man knows how to critique doomed ISP filtering policies.

Steve Cannane interviewed him on Radio National this morning.

The only disappointing aspect was that he didn't commit the opposition 100% to opposing any legislation. Mind you, he doesn't need to, given that their support for legislation seems to be conditional on the trial being proven, by an independent auditor, of being a success. And we all know how likely that is to be.

Why mandatory ISP filtering is a bad idea

Stuart, a commenter on "Somebody Think Of The Children" has made this very simple point:

"The only reason that secrecy is required is the fact that filters don't work, and even those backing them know it. If your filter does work, then there is little harm in publicly listing a URL and a reason for blocking it."

There is a certain seductive truth to this, but there is one flaw. The filters that the Australian Government impose are not universal. Even if the Australian filters were perfect, the list would have to be secret to prevent the list being exploited in jurisdictions not subject to Australian law and hence filters.

Stuarts point would probably be better phrased this way: since filters will never be 100% effective and universal, the list must be secret.

The issue then is whether a democracy can tolerate a permanent lack of transparency and accountability, implicit in existence of a secret list. Relying on secrecy is never a good thing, because secrecy is very hard to sustain or, if it is sustained, it invariably leads to a lack of accountability and an abuse of power.

Why are supporters so confident that the lack of accountability and transparency implicit in the existence of the ACMA blacklist won't eventually lead to corruption and abuses of power in this case?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Xmas, Senator

It was December 31, 2007 as I was preparing to head up the coast to see my favourite band, Mammal, kicking arse in Newcastle at a NYE gig when I caught a NewsRadio interview mid way through.

The interview appeared to be with some conservative nutcase who thought that censoring the Internet would be a good idea. It then became apparent that the nutcase being interviewed was the Minister For Broadband, Communications and The Digital Economy, Senator Conroy talking about his plan for mandatory ISP filtering.

My jaw dropped. What a sneaky time to announce this - the day before the day of the long hangover, when no-one will be thinking too hard about stuff. Still, I banged off my letter to editor and hopped on my train upto Newcastle.

So it is somewhat fitting, I think, that nearly a year later, the SMH chooses to put this on the wrapper page of its December 23-25 edition. Something for the punters to talk about over the Xmas turkey. "Web Censorship Fiasco", the banner screams.

And it only gets better on the actual front page

Merry Xmas, Senator. Stay away from the cranberry sauce, lest someone mistakes you for dinner.

And a very Merry Xmas to Asher Moses and the editorial staff at the SMH - gentlepeople and scholars all.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why don't we know which commercial entities are involved with ACMA?

I'd like to ask a very simple question:

Why don't we know which commercial entities are currently being consulted by ACMA in relation to the Government's ISP filtering plans?

The lack of this information presents a serious difficulty to our side of the debate. The pro-filtering vendor camp, who have a strong financial interest in the Government deciding to impose an ISP-filtering regime, have detailed knowledge of their own strength and weaknessess.

The anti-filtering camp doesn't even know who the vendors are and how far advanced their plans are. Without this knowledge, we can't effectively marshall our resources to do our own analyses of solutions being proposed.

I'd also like to know on what basis the CEO of iPrimus Ravi Bhatia can claim it is "It's easy for us to do it," when other ISPs don't even know if their EOIs have been accepted. Has iPrimus been working with ACMA in advance of the trial being announced? Does it already have filtering infrastructure built and in place? Or will it, too, be scrambling to build the infrastructure between now and when the trial is due to start on Wednesday?

"Mike The Participant", whoever he is, uses his position as an insider within part of the industry to accuse others, like Mark Newton, of being "ignorant". This is quite a call from someone who hurls insults from behind a pseudonym and is a beneficiary of a system that seems designed to keep us ignorant of what is being proposed.

Blatherings about commercial-in-confidence arrangements, particularly in a debate that goes to the core of what it means to be a free society in the 21st century, simply don't wash. Surely citizens contemplating the imposition of such draconian social controls as mandatory ISP-level filtering, deserve fully transparent disclosure and vigorous debate about the respective merits of the solutions being proposed?

Write to your Senators. Write to your local MPs. Write to the paper. Demand to know which commercial entities are working with ACMA and what the extent of their dealings have been to this point.

It is your right. This is, after all, still a democracy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

With Netsweeper installed, the thought police will be unnecessary

Since October 2008 is has been clear that the Government intends to implement a 2-tier filtering regime. The first, mandatory tier, would involve URL blacklist filtering according to a blacklist specified by ACMA. The second, optional (as in opt-out) tier, would be used to filter additional material not on the ACMA blacklist that the Government thinks that Australians should be protected from.

By definition, the second tier of filtering will not use a blacklist, or at least, not an ACMA blacklist. The Government has not talked about a second ACMA blacklist. Instead, the sort of filtering performed by the 2nd tier would be more like the filtering already done in schools, corporations, and by dedicated ISPs that already offer clean feed services. It is not clear what parameters bound the operation of this second tier and how much control individuals will be given over the filtering decisions made by the second tier.

Let's suppose that an ISP grants the user some control over what is blocked on their feed. webshield already does this, for their customers. Products like Netsweeper also have a category list and any ISP that used Netsweeper could potentially offer a configurable filter to their customers.

How would configuration work? Presumably, the adults in the household could select which categories get blocked by the filter. Here's a document that lists the categories that Netsweeper uses. And here is a definition of category 23 pornography.

This category contains URLs that reference, discuss, or show pornography, pictures, videos, or sexually oriented material. This category includes nudity, soft and hard-core pornography, sadomasochism, bestiality, child porn, fetishes, stories, adult magazines, toys, or any sexual related purchase. This category excludes sex education sites.

Which is fine. What is unclear is why Netsweeper classified (on December 21) "The Porn Report Book" as class 23, pornography?

This is a site which is about a book which is about pornography. It is not a site that contains pornography itself.

Worse, here is a page which offers a review of "The Porn Report". On December 21, Netsweeper classified this page as:

Journals and Blogs [1]
Arts & Culture [2]
General News [12]
Pornography [23]

In other words, Netsweeper has decided that a site advertising "The Porn Report" and a site offering (an unflattering) review of "The Porn Report" are themselves pornographic.

What are the implications of this?

Anyone subject to a Netsweeper filter who was interested in educating themselves about the role of pornography in Australian society would be denied access to the site that promotes the book if they have the "pornography" classification switched on - which they surely would, otherwise, why are we having this debate?.

Not only that, anyone in this unfortunate condition who wanted to read reviews of the book, would have their access to some reviews of the book blocked by the same filter.

Promotional websites and book reviews are critical elements that help to sell books. It is an obvious consequence of this inadvertent censorship, that publishers of the Porn Report will lose revenue due to lost sales from a large portion of the Australian population. Furthermore, the voting public won't be as educated about the issue of pornography as they otherwise could be.

What are the publishers of "The Porn Report" meant to do?

Do they prostrate themselves on bended knee before Netsweeper and the other vendors and ask them to remove the "Pornography" classification from the site? Possibly, but why should it be their responsibility to do that? And even if the filter vendors deign to reclassify the site, that doesn't solve the problem. The publishers simply won't know where all the reviews of the book are and whether they have been blocked. Whose responsiblity is it to locate every last blocked review and get the classifcation fixed? Is it the publisher? Why?

This is why filtering for pornography is so unlike any existing censorship mechanism. It doesn't scale to the volume of material and doesn't deal with the contingent and transient nature of publishing on the Internet

So here we have a very real example of how the opt-out filtering policy will place a very real restraint on the trade of people who have conducted serious studies about the role of pornography in Australian society. Furthermore, such a filter will directly interfere with the quality of social and political discourse within this country.

This is quite simply unacceptable for a democracy. The Government should not be setting up a censorship mechanism that censors by default and is fixed by exception.

What a joke.

Readers are invited to discover for themselves what other sites Netsweeper regards as pornography using this test site.

Classifications reported by Netsweeper were accurate as at 21 December, 2008. Subsequent results may vary, presumably in response to the level of community outrage.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mike The Participant wades in

People who read this blog may think that I am rather blind about the problem of child pornography and one-eyed about the need to protect freedom of speech. To help address this imbalance, I decided to help an acquaintance, "Mike The Participant", set up his own blog. For some reason, Mike wishes to remain behind a pseudonym. Anyway, his collected words say it all - enjoy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shame, McMenamin, Shame!

From today's Australian:

Ms McMenamin was equally critical of the past weekend's protests and the DLC's plans for future action.

"Let the 300 people march on Canberra because it looks pathetic," he [sic] said. "It looks pathetic and shameful because most of these people are not fully aware of the facts and secondly, those who are aware are, in effect, advocating child pornography."

[An image of a cowering Bernadette McMenamin. She really has nothing to fear. The person on the otherside of the door is a photographer whose job it is to help sell her vision of moral panic.]

A woman who has to violate the Conroy Rule in her every utterance on this subject is in no position to describe others as pathetic.

Bernadette McMenamin is a living, breathing disgrace to the Order of Australia of which she is a member. If she can't put her case without accusing others of being supporters of child pornography, her case must be exceedingly weak indeed.

We already know exactly how loose McMenamin is with facts and statistics. We know how clueless her grip is on the technical details. But even with this poor grip, she admits that the proposed filter will do almost nothing to stop hard core consumers of child pornography. She fails to consider the unintended consequences and is willing to pay any price in support of a solution that can never attain the objectives set for it.

Bernadette McMenamin's business is moral panic. She has a vested interest in it. From her point of view, an ineffective filter is actually a very good thing, because it means the oxygen that sustains the flames of moral panic, and her organization ChildWise, will never disappear.

Perhaps this is uncharitable. Perhaps McMenamin and ChildWise have done worthy work in the past. Perhaps they do some now. But why should anyone continue to be charitable about a person who unapologeticly accuses her opponents of being witting or unwitting supporters of child pornography. That is a completely despicable accusation as McMenamin herself should well know - if her tears about the plight of abused children mean anything at all.

Bernadette McMenanim, AO, is a scoundrel. Australians who are outraged that she continues to slander her political opponents as supporters of child pornography should use every opportunity they have to remind her how despicable that is.

Oh, and don't forget the March on Canberra in March 2009.

Update:Link to her e-mail address removed. I do encourage people to write to her and express their contempt. But please, try to do it without excessive vitriol since that will not, in the end, help our case. Point out we have tried to reason with her in the past but that we are dismayed that she continues to use the same slander. Remind her that her slander denigrates "Save The Children" as much as it does anonymous targets of her contempt.

Updated 28/2: I recently drew Bernadette's attention to this post. In response she pointed out that she does not herself make a habit of personal attacks against opponents of the filter and that I only gave one example of where she has made use of the slander that upset me so much. To the extent that I implied that she makes a habit of doing so, I retract that implication and apologise for generalizing from but one example. The fact remains, however, that the Australian reported her as making the remark on this occasion and she has yet to publicly deny that this was an accurate record of her remarks.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

With Adults Controlled Like This...

I had a chance to speak at the end of the Sydney rally on December 13 so I figured I would present the argument I wrote up on "Somebody Think Of The Children" last week - "With Adults Controlled Like This, Child Protection Can Wait"

Here's what I said:

On reflection, I should have concluded: "it's about what they view", but hey reality's edit functions are rather poor!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

UK ISPs who resist cleanfeed

This is a reprint from a contribution to a mailing list. The author of the contribution would prefer to remain unattributed for the purposes of this post.

We knew that ISP filtering in the UK is voluntary, and it now looks like the Wikipedia matter may be having some ramifications for censorsing ISPs. Seems some other ISPs have discovered/decided it's 'safe' to advertise that they don't censor.

This page led me to find a couple of UK ISPs with guts, so now we have proof that not all UK ISPs censor (I'm pretty sure there's a lot more than these two - but most probably haven't wanted to risk drawing political attention to themselves):




It is not our role to try and censor what you do with the internet. We do not try and log or limit what you are accessing. It is your responsibility to stick to the laws that apply to you. We have no intention of putting in place any censorship systems or using censored transit feeds.

Censorship systems are usually introduced under the guise of some emotive topic such as stopping child abuse which nobody could argue with. Such systems are very very unlikely to have any actual impact at all on the actual problem they claim to solve. Such systems often break or hinder the normal working of the internet, as seen by wikipedia recently. They are usually easy to circumvent. If they work at all then they just drive the offensive use underground and using encryption so making it harder to find and deal with. They are also the thin end of the wedge as once a system is in place then adding more is easy. Bear in mind most ISPs using such systems then have no control over what is censored or why. If we accept censorship for child abuse, then we have to accept it for terrorism, and then maybe political extremist views, and then maybe not so extreme views, and maybe wrong thinking, and "then they came for me and there was no-one left to speak out" ( )

Black boxes

We have no so called black boxes to covertly monitor traffic and/or pass traffic monitoring to the authorities or anyone else. Obviously the law is such that we may have to add such black boxes, but we would resist as far as possible. We may even find we are not allowed to change this web page if ever that happens. However, I, as director, am happy to answer direct questions on this matter on irc (user RevK) or on usenet and you can get paranoid if I refuse to."


UKFSN added the following to its home page in the last few days (reportedly in response to an enquiry from one of its customers):

"Statement of policy regarding censorship, Phorm/Webwise and other content interception

Our policy is that the electronic communications of our customers are private. We do not intercept, censor, scan or otherwise interfer with our customers' internet service.

UKFSN does not and will not have any dealings with Phorm, the company behind the Webwise system being deployed by some other ISPs to intercept customer internet traffic. We are firmly of the opinion that the Phorm Webwise system is illegal under UK and EU laws. We also believe it to be fundamentally unethical to intercept customer traffic in this manner. It will never happen here.

There is some suggestion that the UK government would like to mandate some form of interception and possibly censorship. We would encourage all interested persons to make it clear to MPs and the government generally that this is not acceptable."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vote for Crikey Australian of the Year

Here's a chance to thank Irene Graham for her tireless efforts to research facts that help douse the flames of moral panic of those who would censor us. She deserves a proper gong, but this would still be a pretty good way to say thank you.

You can also vote for the Crikey Arsehat of the Year. I won't say who I voted for, but close readers of this blog may be able to guess.

Nominations close this Sunday.

Divorce thyself from net censorship

The message I sent with my contribution to this GetUp! campaign. Tweaked a bit to add additional rhetorical flourish that I didn't think of at the time.

Dear Government,

It's a real shame that you have undermined your own credibility on human rights by so strongly supporting a net censorship regime. A Government that doesn't trust its citizens to use its freedoms responsibly will be eyed with suspicion if it tries to enshrine those freedoms into the constitution. Which rights will be enshrined? Only those that a 5 year old can use responsibly?

This is your chance to show leadership instead of fanning the flames of moral panic.

Divorce thyself completely from your net censorship stance. Repudiate it completely. Use this experience as an example of why we need a human rights act and then perhaps people may grudgingly trust you.

Until then, any advocacy by you for an Australian human rights act will, rightly, be viewed with intense suspicion.

"Don't Panic" sunglasses For The 21st Century

Zaphod Beeblebrox had a good way to deal with panic - sunglasses that went dark at the first sign of danger - what you can't see, can't scare you.

In this day and age, when society seems ever more determined to view the world from the perspective of the paedophile, we need a new version of the Joo Janta 200's. Glasses that go dark at the first sight of moral panic or other people's children.

Quite ironic really. In the 19th century, children were to be seen but not heard, in the 20th century fads for liberation of all kinds meant that children were not only to be seen but heard as well - sometimes even listened to. Now that some view the liberation struggles of the 20th century as a somewhat regrettable mistake, it is only appropriate that we have reached the 21st century, an age in which children may be heard, but not seen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Good Cop, Bad Cop?

The Government certainly knows its politics.

Stephen Conroy has been completely and thoroughly vilified by 11 months of rage against his ISP filtering policy. So, if you want to soothe the masses and take the heat out of this coming Saturday's street protests, why not choose a different minister, the likeable Lindsay Tanner, to host the Government's new "hang out and listen to the people" blog

If this is a sincere attempt to listen and not simply a snow job, then good on them.

However, I am yet to be convinced that we should be ready to trust this new touchy, feely Government. After all, this is a Government that doesn't trust its adult citizens to use the uncensored Internet responsibly. This is the Government that doesn't mind violating the Conroy Rule with gay abandon.

In my view, the Government must do at least the following: thoroughly and completely repudiate its previous support for a mandatory ISP filter. And, if it has the integrity to do so, it should apologise for continuously labeling opponents of the filter as supporters of child pornography.

Please don't stand down just yet folks. We need more than well-managed PR. We need a concrete repudiation of the Government's policy by the Government itself. Or, we need to see the trial fail, and let the Government sneak out the back door.

A courageous, principled leader would choose the former. A weaker, unprincipled one the latter. How about it, Kev? What kind of leader are you?

publishing status on government forum: submitted 12/08 20:07, not published
Received: by (Postfix, from userid 48) id 2C61152D47DD; Tue, 9 Dec 2008 20:07:59
 +1100 (EST)
Subject: DBCDE Website - Future Directions - Feedback Form Submitted [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
Content-Type: text/plain;
Message-ID: <>
Date: Tue,  9 Dec 2008 20:07:59 +1100 (EST)

Thank you for submitting feedback to the Digital Economy Future Directions blog.

Help Measure The UK Censorwall

As Colin Jacobs points out, the recent Wikipedia censorship affair provides an excellent example of the kind of obstruction that will be routine once Australia implements a mandatory ISP-level filtering regime

And it provides not just rhetorical ammunition. This overzealous act of censorship provides us with a very real opportunity to legally gather cool, hard data on the performance impact of the 2nd stage filtering infrastructure of the UK clean feed mechanism.

Here's how.

With a simple script, we get users in the UK, Australia and elsewhere to regularly poll random Wikipedia articles and record URLs, response times, status codes and sizes

We keep running these scripts until after IWF and Wikipedia sort out their differences.

We then do a statistical analysis of the performance difference with 2nd stage filtering switched on and with it switched off. This should provide us with an accurate measure of exactly how much overhead 2nd stage filtering adds to typical response times.

I will be writing a small bash script that generates the requisite log files and publishing it here. Please follow this blog entry and the #ukaucensorwall topic in Twitter for further updates. I can be contacted via @jon_seymour in Twitter or jon.seymour at

If anyone else can provide technical expertise to assist with this measurement exercise, please post a comment here or to the Twitter topic with contact details.

For now, please:

  • follow @ukaucensorwall for updates
  • post to #ukaucensorwall to contribute
  • poll this page occasionally for future updates
  • enlist others to the cause (particularly in the UK, but elsewhere would be good too - it will provide a useful control)

Update (2008-12-08 16:05 UTC): Need to think about this for some more so there won't be a script to run, if at all, for 16 hours or so.

Revised Plan 2008-12-08 22:00:00 UTC

A simple script isn't going to do the job because of the risk of inadvertently DDOS'ing WikiPedia should I get too many volunteers.

That said, I do have a simple bash script available which I will share with a restricted number of users in the UK and Australia if there is interest. This could be used to collect some stats right now, just in case the 2nd stage filtering is switched off before I finish the final implementation. You need either Mac OSX, Cygwin + Windows or Linux + wget to run it. Contact me by e-mail if you are interested in running it - the script MUST NOT be shared with anyone because of DDOS risks if it went viral.

Current thought is to either use BOINC or write a custom Java client that communicates with a governing servlet. This will allow tight control over the load WikiPedia gets subjected to and better control of which URLs are tested (which may help with the analysis). I'll probably go with Java rather than BOINC since Java is what I know best unless there is someone who knows how to do BOINC implementations.

I am not going to be able to spend any time on this until later this evening (Sydney time), however if you can lend a hand before that, please let me know and I can do the cyber equivalent of waving my hands in the air to sketch the plan in more detail.

If anyone who can assist with these tasks or issues, let me know:

  • BOINC implementations
  • java programming
  • tomcat + apache hosting
  • statistical analysis - particularly to help plan the test method
  • legal and ethical considerations
  • enlisting UK volunteers - we really need them :-)!
  • enlisting other Australian + international volunteers - useful controls

Revised Plan 2008-12-09 00:41:00 UTC

IWF has backed down so we can't measure the 2nd stage filter this way anymore. However, if get prepared, we will be in a better position to do it if a similar issue occurs in the future.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Principle Of Least Farce

Is it possible that the reason that the Government prefers censorship over law enforcement is that they are trying to respect the Principle of Least Farce?

This is the principle which states that when confronted with a moral panic, a Government should choose the option least likely to cause farce or, if all options will cause farce, the one likely to cause the least farce.

Consider the three incidents today:

  • the man arrested for posting a link to an extremely distasteful video **
  • the man sentenced for depicting a scene of incest within "The Simpsons" family
  • large parts of the UK losing access to the visual depiction of the cover art of a 70's German heavy metal band

And consider the case of the Henson art gallery seizures.

I would argue that of the 4 cases, the one that generated least farce was the one that did not involve law enforcement. Annoying yes, but farcical, not so much.

And with that, perhaps we understand why the Government is so reluctant to use law enforcement in issues of moral panic.

Utter cowardice.

Strong, principled governments demonstrate leadership by dousing moral panics thereby allowing law enforcement to concentrate on the prosecution of real crimes.

Weak, unprincipled ones exploit it. But that exposes law enforcement to the possibility of being placed in farcical prosecutorial positions. Understandably, they don't like it. Which leaves the Government with but one weapon in its kit bag - censorship. Less farce, less fuss.

Governments that refuse to bow to moral panics could protect law enforcement agencies from being exposed to the need to pursue farcical prosecutions. This would improve law enforcement effectiveness and reduce the need for censorship. By caving into moral panics, the Government creates the conditions that make technical censorship seem like an attractive policy option. Even if it doesn't totally eliminate the possibilities for farce.

** or perhaps not. Apparently the clip has aired on US television so it can't be that extreme.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Announcing A New Blog - Filtering Fallacies

I've created a new blog to document filtering fallacies. Each entry will document a particular filtering fallacy and will generally link to the best current expositions of the fallacy, though it may occasionally set forth the description of the fallacy itself.

Feel free to submit the fallacies that you think need to be addressed as comments to the welcome post and examples of good expositions of the fallacy.

With Lego Like This, Who Needs Imagination?

Arguably, this post will earn me an ACMA takedown notice. Consider this:

  • the photo depicts simulated sexual activity between synthetic adults [ my god, I hope they are adults!!! ]
  • it appears on a site which does not use age verification technology.
  • the fiend responsible for linking to the image is me, an Australian citizen, living in Australia. I have no idea who created the image, but I suspect it was one of those Nordic-types who have such strange ideas about pornography.

Go on, ACMA, take me down. I so much want to replace this image with your take-down notice.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Two Ways To Think About Pornography

There seem to be two different ways to think about pornography and the danger it represents to society. The pro-censorship camp views pornography as a dire threat that society needs to be actively and aggressively protected from, the anti-censorship camp views some of it as a problem, but a problem which is confined to a relatively small fringe, well away from the experience of the bulk of the population.

I think the above graphic helps to conceptualize the differences. With the "Sphere" conceptualization, most of the population interacts with G-rated content and may occasionally take excursions away from the centre of the sphere into R- and X-rated content. Many are happy to stay in the centre of the sphere. There are some extremists who seek material that has been refused classification, but there is no inexorable force dragging the bulk of the population into the Refused Classification zone - on the contrary most of the the population is grounded by the gravity of common sense and shared moral values.

On the otherhand, in the "Vortex" conceptualization, the Refused Classification zone is a vortex or black hole into which society will inevitably and tragically be dragged unless there is active resistance.

The anti-censorship lobby thinks of the spherical world of content as being somewhat analogous to Mother Earth itself, dangerous in parts but mostly life-affirming, whereas the pro-censorship lobby is clearly committed to the more exotic vortex-shaped conception of cosmic and moral doom that one might expect to find in a bad sci-fi flick.

This, of course, is just a happy coincidence of the way I drew the analogy and not indicative of any selection bias whatsoever. Well, ok, maybe some.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Letter To My Local Member

Here is a letter I wrote to my local member, Tanya Plibersek. I included the text of my recent SToC post.

If you also agree with my line of argument, I encourage you to also draft a similar message to your local MPs and Senators be they Liberal, Labor or Green.


Thank you for your reply to an e-mail I wrote you regarding my concerns with the Government's ill-conceived plan to introduce mandatory ISP level filtering.

Your statement that the government has no intention to stop adults viewing material that is currently legal would appear to contradict the following facts:

  • Senator Conroy has stated that the filter would block inappropriate and unwanted material and has thus far refused to clarify the meaning of these terms
  • Senator Conroy has stated that the filter would be based on the ACMA black list
  • the ACMA blacklist already contains material which is legal for adults to possess and view (e.g. X-rated videos, nudity)

Having been mystified as to why the Government was proposing a solution that is guaranteed to be technically ineffective, I think I now understand why. The objective can't be to block access to extreme and illegal pornography because that aim is easily defeated. No, it is clear that the objective of this filter is to moderate the porn consumption habits of middle Australia. This objective may even be somewhat effectively achieved as the experience of the Chinese firewall shows.

I explain why this thesis is more reasonable than the explanation being proffered by the Government in a piece that I have included below.

I think the Australian public will easily identify with this argument, in which case the Government's policy will fast become toxic to the political interests of the Australian Labor Party. If, having read my thesis, you agree, I encourage you to lobby your colleagues so that you may rescue the political fortunes of the ALP before it is too late. If you don't, I am sure the Greens and the Liberal Party of Australia will gladly assist.

Sincerely, ...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

With adults controlled like this, protecting children can wait

In this article on "Somebody Think Of The Children", I think the light finally dawns on why a technically ineffective filter is being proposed.

If you agree, or even if you don't, I encourage you to distribute a link to this argument far and wide. I explicitly would like to see it picked up by opinion leaders and the mainstream media because I believe that exercising rationality in pursuit of moral clarity is a very fine thing indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

With Extremists Like These, Who Needs Moderates?

Since Clive Hamilton's Crikey article of November 20 in which he tried to characterise Electronic Frontiers Australia as "representing the most extreme strand of libertarianism", the following organisations and people have taken a stance which is consistent with that of Electronic Frontiers Australia

With extremists like these, who needs moderates?

On Monday, Clive Hamilton wrote another piece for ABC Online. One would have thought that he might respond to EFA's Colin Jacobs subsequent Crikey piece or use his intellect to take the above organizations and individuals to task for their irresponsible opposition to the Government's proposal.

But no. Clive Hamilton, public intellectual, avoided direct confrontation with his public opponents but chose instead to represent the opposition to the Government's proposal by selectively quoting utterances from random, unidentified opponents which he presumably found with a lazy Google search.

Really, Clive, one has to ask what on earth is going on with public intellectuals such as yourself.

If the only people you are prepared to debate are sock puppets, what does that make you?

See also Geordie Guy's and Syd Walker's takes on Hamilton's latest.

Since writing this it has been revealed that another extremist organization, NSW Young Labor, unanimously passed a motion at a recent conference which is consistent with the EFA's position.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sydney Protest - December 13

Here's a link to the Facebook event for the Sydney protest rally on December 13. For those without facebook accounts and no desire to acquire one, the rally is scheduled for 11am at Sydney Town Hall.

Facebookers please RSVP and invite your like-minded friends! Everyone else, just turn up with your like-minded friends!

Links for events in other cities are available here.

Updated: The correct time is 11am

Saturday, November 29, 2008

More on the dangers of implicit approval

In this article on the ABC's Unleashed forum, Melinda Tankard Reist wrote:

"If this material is allowed to be sold - and sold so openly - the Classification Board is sending a message that its okay to want sex with real 'live young girls'."

If we take this argument on face value, then this supports a contention I made earlier this week about one of the possible unintended consequences of attempting to filter extreme porn from the web at the ISP level using an ACMA blacklist.

Given that the Government's filter will inevitably be much less than 100% effective, users might equate availability of incompletely blocked material as some sort of tacit approval by the Government that it is ok to view it, thereby relieving the viewer of the moral responsibility to decide for themselves if they have crossed a line they should not have.

Also, I think an unintended consequence of creating very strict censorship rules for printed or video pornography is that it will drive users of such material to the Internet where there is a much more diverse range of material available.

The problem with that is that there is almost no ability at all to control what people consume via the Internet, everyone knows that and it remains true despite the Government's deeply misguided desire to impose mandatory ISP level filters. Ironically, if we are to deal with the problems of freely available pornography we may have to rely much more on people exercising their own inner freedom to choose the right thing to do, something that can only "occur through consent and never through coercion". [ See Clive, I've been reading your book ].

If I was Melinda Tankard Reist I would be careful about what I wished for.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A succinct visual rebuttal of the book censorship analogy

This complements Syd Walker's detailed rebuttal of Hamilton's appeal to the TV < - > Internet analogy. Personally, I think Hamilton's use of the TV < - > Internet analogy is great because of the absurd conclusions it leads to.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Conroy Rule

There has been a rule in USENET for many years, the so-called The Hitler Rule.

This rule states that the first person to mention Hitler in a flame war, loses.

Given the heat of the Mandatory ISP Level Filtering debate, a new rule is needed

The first person to equate free speech with an unrestricted right to access child pornography, loses.

It seems only fair that since this phase of the mandatory ISP level filtering debate was opened by Senator Conroy in just this fashion, the rule should be named after him, hence "The Conroy Rule".

Update 29/11:For those that wish to quote the rule in other places, I think I prefer David Vaile's more concise statement of the rule that he included in the notice to participants of the Cyber Law forum. To wit:

The first person to equate free speech with child pornography, loses.

The reason the simpler wording is preferred is that the original statement could be twisted by some to suggest that there is a case being put for restricted access to child pornography on free speech grounds. This is not the case and anyone who is making such a claim should be prepared to back it up.

Thank you Liberal Party, thank you Greens

It would appear that the Labor party's ISP filtering policy may be doomed until the next Senate is elected, thanks to strong opposition from the Liberal Party and the Greens.

No thanks to GetUp! No thanks to all those ALP members who either did not reply to our letters of protest or who replied with robotic form letters.

There is still work to do - we need to get the ALP to repudiate this policy, once and for all - and not give them our Senate votes until they do.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Government approved illegal pornography

Suppose the Government implements filtering.

The filter fails to be 100% effective - well d'oh!

Some rape and child pornography sites still get through the filters.

However, by this time the populace has been relieved of the responsibility to decide for themselves what is acceptable and non-acceptable pornography. Some may think that if the filter has not blocked it, it must be ok to view and so no further moral judgement is required on their part.

Could the problems the anti-porn people worry about actually get worse, precisely because of the implicit Government authorisation that an ineffective filter will give to material that isn't blocked?

This risk is separate from the risk that by making necessary use of encryption and tunneling to evade filters it may be harder for authorities to monitor and control the activities of Australian paedophiles.

And this risk is separate from the risk, that having adopted encrypted tunnels to pursue their sexual interests, some users may feel secure enough to indulge in even more extreme material than they might have before the filters were imposed.

Given the importance of evidence based policy to this Government, how will success be measured? Will a reduction in web traffic to porn sites mean a reduction in usage of porn, or an increase in usage of p2p traffic and tunnels? Will a reduction in conviction rates for child pornography offences mean a reduction in offence rate, or a reduction in detection rate? What methodology will be used to decide these questions?

Just how many faceless, uncountable children are McMenamin and Hamilton prepared to sacrifice on their altar of state-enforced moral purity?

Why even one?

Is there any evidence these intellects have even considered these questions? If not, perhaps they should commission another NewsPoll.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The sources of anger and other responses.

This post is a response to Clive's reply to my rather barbed attack on his credibility as a public intellectual.

I do need to apologise for certain mistakes I made, particularly in drawing attention to one of his trivial mistakes in parsing an article. I knew at the time he had made a mistake, perhaps because he hadn't read the paragraphs carefully enough. I had rather cynical rhetorical reasons for drawing attention to it - and I did so deliberately in full knowledge it was cheap shot. However, I do now acknowledge it was a cheap shot and not really indicative of any significant failing on Clive's part. I should also apologise for using the term intellectually shoddy. I should have used the term intellectually unsound.

That said, that cheap shot was merely 1-arm of 3-armed argument that led to the conclusion that Clive was "displaying contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate". I am not going to withdraw that accusation at this point in time because I believe the accusation can be sustained on the basis of the other 2-arms of the argument alone. I will expand on this point below.

I am also not going to withdraw the charge of intellectual dishonesty unless Clive admits that his dichotomy is false and that it was an honest mistake. If he does that, we will have come a long way in this debate. It should be noted that he still believes his dichotomy is valid. I still disagree for reasons I will explain later.

I am also not going to withdraw the charge of Clive arguing in a manner that brings disgrace not only on himself but on the entire profession of public intellectual unless and until Clive ceases to imply or suggest that net libertarians are in some way sympathetic to the view that people should have an unconstrained right to view illegal material such as child pornography. We are not. We never have been. Any attempt to twist our arguments to suggest that we are will always remain intellectually disgraceful and I will not resile from naming it as such.

In his reply, Clive asked a very good question:

I wonder whether you ever reflect one why you become so enraged about proposals to regulate the internet?

This question is very easy to answer. There is the personal explanation that relates to my psyche and there is my answer as one of those much denigrated net libertarians.

First, the personal answer. I get angry when I perceive others are behaving irrationally when claiming to be rational. I get angry about this because I think logic should be enough to persuade another of the correctness of my view point. However, logic alone doesn't work in the face of irrationality - it can never work. This reveals itself as frustration and then anger on my part. Sometimes I am the one who is wrong about some axiom and when I eventually realise that I feel a little bit sheepish about getting so upset - sorry Dad - but sometimes other people really are behaving irrationally. It is perhaps a fortunate thing indeed that I thus far have never been a violent person - who knows what the next (first) brain injury will do! Instead, as I have got older I have started to appreciate the value of rhetoric as tool when dialectic has failed. My rhetoric certainly has an element of the bully to it, and that undoubtedly can be tied back to elements in my psyche. C'est la vie. ps: If anyone chooses to quote this paragraph, please do it in full.

But that's me. Why do we as a class - the net libertarians - get angry? We get angry because from day one of this phase of the argument (30/12/2007), our opponents have consistently tried to misrepresent our arguments against net censorship as arguments for child pornography. There should be no further need of explanation about why that makes us angry.

To Clive's specific points. I have already apologised for the cheap shot. The second arm of the argument was the point about the selective quotation, the third arm was the point about implying by omission.

Clive stated that his point about "individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame" could be sustained on the basis of Hackett's comment "We live in a world of multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid." alone.

I would agree with Clive if Hackett had been referring to a world which included the views of NAMBLA and Zen Buddhists and one is comparing these systems with another system of morality, such as that of secular humanists. With respect to secular humanism, the views of NAMBLA very definitely are not equally valid. However, Hackett wasn't talking about that world. He was talking about a world that included: Anglo Saxon protestants, Muslims and people who hate Scientologists. There is very definitely a sense in which these systems are equally valid. A Chinese Australian of the Buddhist faith probably regards them as equally valid alternatives to his own choice. It is not the choice he has made, for sure, but in terms of choices other people might make, they are equally valid.

Neither Hackett, Malone or myself are French post-modernists for whom I do have contempt [ they abandoned anything resembling rationality long ago - see Sokal and Bricmont ]. By omitting to put the full context of the quote into his article, Clive left open the possibility that he thought we were arguing like French post-modernists. That's insulting enough. But it gets worse, since we are involved in a debate where terms like beastialty, rape and child pornography get thrown about with homosexual abandon, Clive left open the charge that we believe that NAMBLA has an equally valid morality. Let's be clear: we are geeks, not French post-modernists and we are definitely not NAMBLA supporters. As far as I am concerned the charge that Clive "displayed contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate" still stands.

As far as Clive's second point in defence of the statement:

Logic without moral clarity is not logic at all.

The confusion here lies with the way Clive used the term logic. If Clive had said:

A logical system without moral clarity is not a logical system at all

I would would have objected because some logical systems contain no moral view point - for example, arithmetic.

If Clive had said:

A system of morality without moral clarity is not a system of morality at all.

I might have quibbled that it was not a useful system of morality, but it was still a system of morality.

But that's not what Clive said, he said:

Logic without moral clarity is not logic at all.

Let's clarify what I mean by logic. Logic is the set of rules of a logical system. By rules, I mean the way propositions of the system are combined to produce new propositions. I do not mean the axioms or resulting theorems themselves. In the Western tradition, the rules of logic have been known for a very long time and are not in dispute. If the logical system is a system of ethics, then the axioms and conclusions may or may not have "moral clarity" (what does that term mean, anyway?) but the rules of the ethical system themselves are value free. An implication is still an implication, even if it leads to a morally ambiguous conclusion.

I think Clive could help clarify this question greatly if he could explain exactly what he means by the terms: "logic" and "moral clarity". Until then, I believe the charge of unsound intellectualism still stands.

I completely reject Clive's third point. The position: "It is a problem, the Government should do something, but that something is not net censorship" is part of the "should not filter" case and is not a part of the "we should filter, but we can't so let's do something else" case. It simply isn't, and unless Clive accepts this point I may well get angry.

So, let's be very clear. There is a valid position in the "should not filter" case which is this.

  • there is a problem
  • the Government should do something
  • we should not use mandatory ISP filtering, even if we could
  • we do not believe people should access child pornography

This is certainly my position and it is easy to defend. If Clive really believes I need to do so, I will do so in another post. But let's be clear, this position is not in anyway equivalent to this very different (and objectionable) position:

  • there really is no problem
  • there should be no mandatory ISP filter
  • we believe people should be able to access child pornography with out any form of social restraint

The problem with Clive's position is that he believes that if we can do it, we should do it. That's a valid position, but it is not our position. We believe the unintended consequence of giving the Government control of a net censorship apparatus is simply too great a price to pay. I would contend that everyone involved has a price for "protecting the children" which is too high to pay - that is ours.

Perhaps Clive does not agree that this is an acceptable position to take, and Clive is free to argue that case. However, it is definitely a position in the "should not filter" group and as such by omitting it Clive was presenting a false dichotomy.

So, unless Clive admits he made a mistake and that his dichotomy was actually false, the charge of intellectual dishonesty still stands.

Finally, it should be made clear that I was using the term "barbarian" in a figurative sense. I don't really believe Clive is a barbarian. I was using the term "public intellectual" in the literal sense but Clive is free to correct me on this if he believes that is incorrect.

Yep, that was a cheap shot. Sorry.

A reply from Clive Hamilton - public intellectual.

Clive Hamilton has generously agreed to let me publish his reply in full on my blog. I would like to thank him for that for several reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to apologise for the cheap shot I made about him confusing a statement by Hackett, for one by Malone. More importantly, though, it allows the debate to continue in a public forum. I will be responding to most of the points raised here separately.

Clive's reply in full.

From: "Clive Hamilton" 
To: "'Jon Seymour'" 
Subject: RE: With public intellectuals like this, 
who needs barbarian?
Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2008 11:58:23 +1100


Increasingly I find it difficult to distinguish between "left-libertarians" and right-wing libertarians. In practical terms I can see virtually no difference.

I'd make three specific points about your article and one general one.

1. I did mistakenly attribute the quote to Michael Malone when it should have been attributed to Simon Hackett. I misread the quote as being from the person who was being quoted just beforehand, thinking it was running on and missing the reference to Hackett. I should have been more careful. Yet this simple error is the basis for you to accuse me of "contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate". What an extraordinary over-reaction. Why on earth could it strengthen my argument to attribute the quote to the head of one ISP rather than another?

As for the accusation that I quoted "selectively", the words selected are not out of context. The rest of the quote only reinforces the point about unthinking moral relativism.

2. On the logic and morals question, logic is not just a disembodied cognitove process, like a computer whirring away. Every logic text will ask you first to set out your premises. So an argument always depends on the assumptions underpinning it, including the moral assumptions. Tech geeks are like neoclassical economists -- they think what they say is somehow "value free". This is a delusion entertained by people who lack an explicit philosophical perspective, and therefore remain captive to an implicit one. My replies to my critics have been an attempt to get them to be clear about their ethical positions. Because most are unaccustomed to thinking about morality and the role of the social they have great difficulty doing this.

3. On the accusation that I have attempted to constrain the debate in way that suits my argument, I only point out that your "one other choice" is precisely that one I offered second in my list of three.

I wonder whether you ever reflect one why you become so enraged about proposals to regulate the internet? Look at the words you have used to attack me -- "desperate", "wild claim", "contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate", "intellectually dishonest", "an intellectual disgrace of the highest order, "intellectually shoddy", "dishonest and disgraceful", "should be ashamed of himself", "barbarian".

Really, Jon, one has to ask what on earth is going on with net liberatarians such as yourself.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

With A Public Intellectual Like This, Who Needs Barbarians?

Mike Meloni kindly invited me to write something for Somebody Think Of The Children. We agreed that I could publish it here also - thanks Mike!

In a year or two from now Australians may wake up to find themselves living in a country unique amongst Western democracies - a country that has imposed mandatory filtering on all residential ISP feeds. It is unlikely that most will notice anything unusual about that particular day - any reports of unusually slow Internet connections will be written off as the ravings of a paranoid minority for that is surely what they will be. After all, a single sample on a single day does not a trend make.

That morning may see protests, possibly on the streets. For a brief while the dissent will capture the attention of the media and editorials will be written cautioning the Government that they would do well to treat their newly enacted powers wisely. A few days later, the controversy will die down as the Ritalin-deprived eye of the media wanders onto the next most appealing outrage. Dissent will have been silenced, temporarily.

Several years later, as some wonder why they aren't getting better than 12Mbps out of their now much larger National Broadband Network pipes, others may wonder why the war on child pornography hasn't been won yet. As the calls are raised again for yet more effective filtering of pernicious Internet porn, some may also notice the similarity in the arguments being put forth to argue that anorexia sites should be added to the ACMA blacklist - "it's for the children, after all". This despite the previous assurances that this would not happen. Bloggers in forums such as this will still be bitterly reminding those that read them: "We told you so".

When this situation comes to pass, who should Australians thank for the state they have found themselves in? Perhaps it will be current Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy?


The person that all right-thinking Australians will thank is the founding (and now former) executive director of a left-wing Australian think tank - The Australia Institute - Professor Clive Hamilton. As recently as this week, Hamilton unashamedly claimed moral rights to the architecture of the policy when, during a talk-back program on ABC Radio National, he stated: "We were the first to advocate exactly this sort of system back in 2003". And it is undoubtedly true: the blueprint that the Government has adopted for its mandatory ISP filtering proposal is virtually unchanged from the model set forth in Flood and Hamilton's Australia Institute discussion paper "Regulating Youth Access to Pornography". Senator Conroy may currently be the proposal's leading proponent but he is hardly the intellectual force behind the endeavour. That honour surely, and deservedly, goes to Flood and Hamilton.

One would like to believe that the course of time and rational argument would have disposed of Flood and Hamilton's proposal as a temporary aberration in the output of otherwise respected public intellectuals, particularly ones with such fine progressive credentials. Alas, although the arguments were superbly debunked by Irene Graham in 2003, this is not the case. Not only has this lunacy become official Government policy, at least one of its principal authors still proudly proclaims his ownership of it.

That being the case, one would have expected that in the intervening years Hamilton would have refined his arguments. If anything, his rhetoric is looking more desperate. Take this quote from a recent post on Crikey.

The individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame. Attacking Labor’s filtering plans, the CEO of iiNet, Michael Malone, declared: “We live in a world of multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid”.

To substantiate his claim that "individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame" Hamilton uses a quote allegedly from Michael Malone. Since the source wasn't quoted, one can't be certain what it was, but it seems likely it was this article. In fairness to Michael Malone, here is a more complete quote from the article.

"If the Federal Government says we are going to stop certain sorts of objectionable content, what on earth is the definition of bad here?" asks Hackett. "Is it the Federal Government's definition of bad? Is this going to be a white Anglo-Saxon protestant filtering system? Is it going to be a Muslim filtering system? Is it going to be one that doesn't like Scientology? The problem is we live in a world with multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid."

"For some parents, they may consider information about homosexuality to be a real problem," says Malone. "But for some other parents they might consider that to be entirely appropriate. Nudity in art may be appropriate for one set of parents, not for another. Those things are household decisions."

So, here we have Hamilton selectively quoting Simon Hackett, attributing that quote to Michael Malone and then implying by omission that this quote displays "a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame". I challenge anyone to explain how Hackett and Malone's statements substantiate Hamilton's wild claim. The only contempt on display here is Hamilton's own contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate.

All moral standards are equally valid. Electronic Frontiers Australia, which represents the most extreme strand of internet libertarianism, has argued that filtering will impose one set of sexual standards on others who don’t share them and this makes all net censorship invalid.

Logic without moral clarity is no logic at all. If EFA truly believed this then it would support abolition of all restrictions on films, television, books and magazines. Every perverse and sick practice that could find a market would be available, including child pornography.

Hamilton's statement about logic's correctness being dependent on its moral clarity is astonishing for someone who has just accused others of moral relativism. How can logic have moral clarity? Logic is value free. It is precisely this quality of logic that enables logic to be used to rationally debate the different merits of alternative moral systems. This is why ethics is a discipline of philosophy and not a branch of applied religion. One would think, at the very least, that a professor of ethics would understand this vital distinction between logic and morality.

Hamilton's article drew a lot of criticism to its comments page. In response to these criticisms, Hamilton wrote:

As I see it, there are only three types of position to take on mandatory filtering.

  1. We should not do it (end of story, as practicalities are irrelevant)
  2. We should do it but we can't (because filters don't work well enough, so we have to put up with the problem or seek other methods).
  3. We should do it and we can do it (so let's go ahead).

If you believe we should not do it (i.e. your position is 1) there are two types of reasons for it:

  1. It's not a problem
  2. It is a problem but it's not government's job to intervene to tackle it.

In the above quote we have a public intellectual attempting to frame the debate in terms favourable to his argument by presenting a false dichotomy. There is, of course, at least one other choice: it is a problem, the Government should do something about it, but that something should not be mandatory ISP filtering. However, Hamilton appears so stuck in the intellectual hole he has dug himself that he can't even admit the possibility that there are other solutions to the problem that do not involve mandatory ISP filtering. He also appears convinced that the problem is a technical one (the existence of an uncensored Internet) and thus requires a technical fix (eliminate the uncensored Internet).

Let's illustrate the flaw in Hamilton's arguments by drawing an analogy between the Internet and church choirs:

Internet Church choirs
The uncensored Internet allows unrestricted access to websites containing illegal pornography. Church choirs provide pedophilic priests with access to young boys.
Eliminate the uncensored Internet. Eliminate all church choirs.

While it is undoubtedly true that church choirs do provide pedophilic priests with access to young boys, the problem isn't the church choirs, it is the pedophilic priests and that is what needs to be fixed - not the existence of church choirs.

The analogy with the Internet is clear: the problem is not the uncensored Internet, it is with the websites that contain illegal pornography, the illegal pornography itself and the effects on the the people who consume it. And similarly, the fix needs to be directed at the problem, not the medium.

Imposing mandatory ISP filtering does nothing about the illegal websites, it does nothing to restrict access to those sites by people who want it, and it does nothing about the effects on those people. It is the wrong fix for the wrongly identified problem.

One can agree with everything Hamilton has written about the risk that Internet-sourced pornography poses to children and still not agree that mandatory ISP filtering is the only way to address the problem.

While it is intellectually dishonest to present a false dichotomy, it is an intellectual disgrace of the highest order to use that false dichotomy to argue that opposition to mandatory ISP filtering implies supporting "the abolition of all restrictions on films, television, books and magazines. (Implying that) Every perverse and sick practice that could find a market would be available, including child pornography."

Clive Hamilton is one of the intellectual fathers of the mandatory ISP filtering proposal the Government is now advocating. His continued arguments in support of it are often intellectually shoddy and are at times dishonest and disgraceful. He should be ashamed of himself.

With a public intellectual like this, who needs barbarians?

Jon Seymour is a left-libertarian geek who cares for Englightnment values, both his own and those of others. He is thankful he briefly studied philosophy at university and deeply regrets the fact that Clive Hamilton did not. He blogs about this and similar issues at "Broadbanned Revolution - fight the philterphiles that be."

This article may be reproduced, unedited, in other forums. Requests for permission to publish edited reproductions of the article should be directed to the author.

The Analogy Between TV and the Internet

In the relatively small pro-censorship lobby much is made of the analogy between TV and the Internet. "Society accepts censorship of TV programming", so the argument goes, "so why should it not also accept censorship of the Internet?"

And with that, they turn to their supporters in audience give them a high-five, and return to grin at their opponents. "Respond to that one, if you dare".

So let's look this analogy more carefully. If the Government were to censor TV as it intends to censor the Internet, it would do this:

  • Install a device in everyone's home that could turn the TV off on the whim of a faceless Government bureaucrat
  • Monitor TV broadcasts and, if someone decides that something worse than naughty is being aired, switch off everyone's TV set.
  • Leave the source TV stations and program producers unobstructed by effective law enforcement action, except for the occasional token raid.

Not only would this mechanism be incredibly wasteful, it directs the wrath of a faceless Government bureaucracy against the wrong target - the innocent family at home watching TV and leaves the source of the filth completely unscathed.

All socially acceptable censorship mechanisms have worked by censoring at the source. That's why the possession of porn is not illegal, but the sale of it can be. The deep conceptual flaw with the mandatory ISP filtering proposal is that it attempts to censor at the receiver.

History has shown that all such mechanisms are futile and inspire a great deal of resistance. The same will be true of this proposal.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clive Hamilton's advocacy of the abdication of parental responsibility.

This is a response to a recent posting by Clive Hamilton on I have edited it slightly to fix certain typos and errors of expression the original post. I also use this opportunity to expand on points I could not previously express because of space constraints on Crikey.

In the comments of his original post, Clive wrote:

> 1. The implication is that if parents want to screw up their children then that's their business alone.

The implication of your argument, Clive, is that all parents want to screw up their children.

If this wasn't an implication of your argument, there would be no reason for a mandatory ISP filter. You know that is true because you have actually written statements to this effect in other places.

If your arguments have any validity at all, and I am not granting that, then the strongest case they build is that adults with children should have their ISP feeds filtered.

Filtering everyone's feed because it conveniently absolves you of explaining to Australian parents that they are all irresponsible reprobates who can't be trusted to bring up their own children without Government help is not sufficiently good grounds to filter my internet connection or anyone else's.

BTW: in your scheme, will households with children be allowed to opt out of the optional filter? If so, on what grounds? Who gets to decide that a parent is sufficiently responsible to monitor their own children's internet use?

As for the allegedly theoretical nature of the threat of censorship. You are proposing the construction of censorship apparatus that will censor sites about anorexia as easily as it will censor porn. This is the practical outcome of your proposal. Whether it actually will censor it doesn't matter - the infrastructure will be there, ready to be switched on the next time a regressive Government takes power.

There is no benefit in filtering my Internet connection. Unlike others who apparently need to do it for their job, I have no reason to view child porn, online or offline. The imposition of a mandatory ISP filter on my connection provides zero practical benefit to me, or to anyone's kids.

> It's not viewed as another useful mode of communication but as the source of ultimate freedom. Home alone in front of my computer I can travel where I like and evade my responsibilities to society.

As to your argument that we seek to evade responsibility, that is rubbish. The only person in this debate advocating abdication or evasion of responsibility is you, Clive.

Our argument is that adults are absolutely responsible for their own Internet use and should not be relieved of this responsibilty. Similarly parents should be responsible for the Internet use of their children and, unless they are incapable of it, should not abdicate that responsibilty.

You have consistently argued busy parents must be relieved of this responsibility and that adults without children must bear the consequences of this abdication.

To characterise our position as an evasion of responsibility is absurd, considering your own position.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The analogy of rape and access to child pornography

In a comment on the "GetUp!" blog I accidentally pasted the text of an earlier post on this blog (in addition to the copy I intended to paste).

In response to this comment I was challenged about the validity of the analogy I drew between access to child pornography and rape

Jon, you wrote:

'We don't force drunk men in the presence of scantily clad women to be chained to a pole because rape is illegal. We prosecute actual transgressions of the law.'

I want to point out that being in the presence of scantily clad women does not cause men to choose to rape, or have any influence over a choice to rape. Rape is about power. That analogy is inappropriate in a number of ways.

Firstly, any viewing of child pornography is harmful- it results in the creation of more child pornography.

Secondly, relating sexiness to rape does men and women (and sex!) a disservice.

Thirdly, it would be a good thing if child pornography could be blocked by technical means, as this would remove a market for something that is infinitely cruel and harmful.

It is very clear that this will not be achieved by filtering the internet and the governments idea is incredibly stupid and unhelpful.

However analogies like the above are not helpful either.

I responded with another comment in which I laid out the analogy explicitly.

freedom to enjoy sexiness <-> freedom to enjoy uncensored access to the Internet
rape <-> access to child pornography
physically restrain all men to prevent some men raping sexy or vulnerable women "because" they are there <-> censor the Internet for everyone, to prevent some accessing child pornography "because" it is there
most men don't rape <-> most internet surfers don't view child pornography
freedom to enjoy sexiness does not license rape <-> freedom to enjoy uncensored access to the Internet does not license access to online child pornography
prosecute actual occurrences of rape <-> prosecute actual access to child pornography
treat all men as rapists who cannot be trusted to not rape <-> treat all Internet surfers as pedophiles who cannot be trusted to not view child pornography

This post discusses these points more discursively.

> I want to point out that being in the presence of scantily clad women does not cause men to choose to rape, or have any influence over a choice to rape. Rape is about power....

Agreed. Likewise, in my analogy, freedom to access the uncensored Internet does not cause people to view child pornography. The freedom to use an uncensored Internet does not license access to child pornography any more than the freedom to enjoy scantily clad women licenses rape.

> Firstly, any viewing of child pornography is harmful- it results in the creation of more child pornography.

I never claimed that access to child pornography is harmless. Indeed, in my analogy, accessing child pornography is equivalent to rape. Access to child pornography is harmful. Rape is harmful.

> Secondly, relating sexiness to rape does men and women (and sex!) a disservice.

There is a (perverted) relationship between sexiness and rape. Likewise there is a (perverted) relationship between freedom to access an uncensored Internet and online access to child pornography.

But, again, one does not license the other. There is no license to rape in the existence of the freedom to enjoy sexiness just as their is no license to view child pornography implicit in the freedom to access to an uncensored Internet.

Freedom to enjoy sexiness is good. Freedom to access to an uncensored Internet is good. Neither rape nor access to child pornography is justified under any circumstance.

We don't presume that all men are rapists even though some are. We therefore do not pre-emptively deny all men their liberty (by chaining them to poles) even though there is a risk that some of them will rape in the presence of the temptation of sexy or vulnerable women. Likewise we should not impinge upon the liberties of all people by creating a censored Internet because some people may abuse that freedom to view child pornography.

An unconstrained man is no more free to rape a vulnerable woman than an unconstrained net surfer is to view child pornography. The lack of a restraint is not license to offend, nor should it be, in real life or online.

With my analogy I was also trying to highlight the fact that in real life we deny liberty to sanction actual abuses of the law, not potential abuses.

Let's be clear, viewing child pornography is a crime. Rape is a crime. Neither is justified under any circumstances. However, we don't chain men up because rape is possible. We chain men up if they rape.

The same should be true with the Internet and child pornography. Prosecute actual use of the stuff. Don't interfere with everyone else's access to the Internet because some people might abuse that freedom to view child porn.

> Thirdly, it would be a good thing if child pornography could be blocked by technical means, as this would remove a market for something that is infinitely cruel and harmful. It is very clear that this will not be achieved by filtering the internet and the governments idea is incredibly stupid and unhelpful. However analogies like the above are not helpful either.

If there was a drug that rendered all men incapable of rape, would it be a good thing if we forced all men to consume it? Surely it is better that we respect men who, by choice, do not rape and punish those that do.

Denying the freedom to act responsibly is denying freedom itself.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Treat the criminals as criminals, leave the rest of us alone

What's wrong with the proposition that convicted sex offenders are forced to consume a strictly filtered feed provided by, say, the NSW education department? Any attempt to use a non-filtered feed would be a criminal offence with appropriate penalties.

This would constrain the deprivation of liberty to convicted sex offenders, would make good use of existing, 99% effective - if draconian - filtering infrastructure and would achieve the stated objective of denying the evildoers access to illegal material.

The NSW education department's highly effective filtering infrastructure already exists. The incremental cost of adding convicted sex offenders to its client base would be minimal.

Some might think that such totalitarian control over the Internet consumption of convicted sex offenders is a bit harsh for a Western democracy. Perhaps it is, but if so aren't the Government's plans to impinge on the liberties of innocent Australians who have committed no crime an even greater affront to civil liberties?

As it stands, the Government's current proposal treats the entire Australian population as a band of pedophiles who are so morally irresponsible that they cannot be trusted to stay away from illegal material on their own accord or even with threat of legal sanction. The Government apparently believes that Australians must be physically restrained from consuming illegal material - this can be the only justification for not relying on moral and legal sanctions.

Just how depraved does the Australian Government think we are?

How does the Government think it can maintain such a low opinion of us and stay in office?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A summary of recent articles about the filtering proposal

This Wiki on Overclockers provides a good summary of recent articles about the abomination which is Conroy's filtering proposal.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The fundamental objection

Stephen Conroy has stated: "Currently, some material is banned and we are simply seeking to use technology to ensure those bans are working."

I object to the principle that because something is illegal, it must be blocked by technical means. We don't force drunk men in the presence of scantily clad women to be chained to a pole because rape is illegal. We prosecute actual transgressions of the law.

The idea that the Australian public is so perverted that, unless it is physically prevented from doing so, it will become a habitual consumer of child pornography is deeply offensive to me. The Australian Labor Party may have individuals of this type, but I refuse to have this standard applied to me as should other normal Australians.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd *

Googlers will be amused to note that in response to a search like ***:
"Kevin Rudd" site:org
Google will display this message:

In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 2 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at

Upon visiting the link, one finds a letter which indicates that the result has been removed because it contains child pornography.

Intrigued by this, I started to wonder what other terms were blocked and I found that the following queries were also blocked:

"Julia Gillard" site:org
"Stephen Conroy" site:org
"Australian Politics" site:org
"Australian Politics" October 2008 site:org
"John Howard" site:org
but not:
"John Faulkner" site:org
"Malcom Turnbull" site:org
"Australian Politics" August 2008 site:org
I found that this search:
site:org "Australian Politics" "illegal" "rudd" "October" "2008" "terrorist" "July" "Gillard"
yields 7 hits and one block. I then wondered if I could work out what text was on the blocked page by trying various phrases that invoked the filter. Including:
"Kevin Rudd is a" site:org
This yielded several results and a block, so I substituted in text from a non-blocked site. Eventually, I found that this:
"Kevin Rudd is a bureaucratic" site:org
produces exactly one hit and one block. Here is the full text of the non-blocked result:

A platoon of Aussie soldiers were patrolling north of Fallujah when they came upon an Iraqi terrorist, badly injured and unconscious. On the opposite side of the road was an Australian soldier in a similar but less serious state.

The soldier was conscious and alert and as first aid was given to both men, the Platoon Leader asked the injured Australian what had happened. The soldier reported, 'I was heavily armed and moving north along the highway here, and coming south was a heavily armed insurgent.' We saw each other and both took cover in the ditches along the road. I yelled to him that Saddam Hussein was a miserable, lowlife scum bag who got what he deserved. He yelled back that Kevin Rudd is a bureaucratic, good-for-nothing, right wing labor dickhead who knows bugger all about running the country.'

'So I said that Osama Bin Ladin dresses like a frigid, mean-spirited lesbian and acts like one too!' He retaliated by yelling, 'Oh yeah? Well, so does Julia Gillard!'

'And so there we were, in the middle of the road, laughing and chatting away when a truck hit us.'

Searching for any phrase from that joke, causes Google to report a blocked result. Add the criteria: +conroy like so:
"Saddam Hussein was a miserable, lowlife scum" +conroy site:org

and Google reports that all results for this query are blocked.

The conclusion, therefore, is that Google's filter is blocking a site that contains a disparaging joke about Kevin Rudd and some reference to Stephen Conroy.

* Of course, the presence of a disparaging joke about Kevin Rudd is almost certainly not the reason Google is blocking the site, but the fact remains the site contains a disparaging joke about Kevin Rudd and it is being censored. Not a good look for a government wishing to impose a mandatory filtering regime on the country's Internet feeds.

** to duplicate this result you need to have disabled Google's strict content filtering in the preferences page of the Google search page.

*** since writing this post, Google's search engine is behaving differently on the less specific queries listed above. However, as of 20/10, this search still causes Google to report a blocked result.

site:org "Stephen Conroy" "Australian Politics" "Kevin Rudd"

**** As of 21/10, none of the above Google searches listed above yield an indication of a blocked result.

***** Updated 16 January, 2010: See "Re: Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd" for an update to my findings in relation to this search.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Perverted Perspective Of Our Prime Minister

In times of crisis such as these, I think that a pithy, highly replicable meme can come in handy. Here's mine, with thanks to Irene of the STOP censorship mailing list for drawing my attention to Amy Adler's insightful analysis of these questions.

I find it disturbing that when confronted with the image of a naked 12-year-old girl our Prime Minister instantly interprets the image as a paedophile would - as the depicition of an object of forbidden sexual desire. He could have chosen the interpretation the artist intended, but he chose not to. Perhaps Prime Minister Rudd's reputation as a nerdy intellectual is undeserved after all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The futility of censorship in the Internet age

It was a relief to read that at least one advocate of censorship in the current debate, Bernadette McMenamin, has been prepared to quite firmly state that her call for censorship is strictly limited to depictions of child sexual abuse and further that she seems genuinely interested in understanding the anger of the opposing camp. No doubt this maturity and openness to other points of view is symptomatic of the qualities that have seen her receive many plaudits and gongs in her career.

In the interests of mutual understanding, it is probably worth highlighting the things about which we do agree so that we can tightly focus the remaining debate on the issue of difference - the merits of a technical censorship regime.

I think it is fair to assume that everyone in this debate who is not made of straw would strongly agree with the following statements:

  • child sexual abuse is morally wrong and should be illegal
  • making, viewing or distributing depictions of child sexual abuse is morally wrong and should be illegal (legal censorship).

Where we start to differ is with this statement:

  • if an activity is morally wrong and/or illegal then depictions of this activity must be blocked by technical means (technical censorship), whatever the cost and no matter how futile such attempts will be

It is disagreement about this statement which is the major crux of the debate and the source of most of its heat. There are some in the anti-censorship camp that are opposed to technical censorship on philosophical grounds; there are others who are repulsed by the utter futility of any attempt to impose a technical censorship regime ; there are those who are frustrated by the ignorance of those who insist on imposing such a regime despite its inevitable futility.

For reasons of completeness, I will briefly mention one other source of heat in the debate - whether a mandatory technical censorship regime should apply to depictions of legal sexual activity between consenting adults. However, I will leave discussion of this issue to a later post. Again, it is pleasing to learn that Ms McMenamin has made clear she does not wish to participate in this aspect of the debate.

Without wishing to be patronising and in part because Ms McMenamin has demonstrated a willingness to be informed, I would like to explain one reason why any attempt to censor child pornography with an ISP-level filter is utterly futile, no matter how socially desirable such a filter would be.

It comes down to a technology called Tor that Mark Pesce recently introduced into the public debate.

Like many powerful technologies, and like the Internet itself, Tor is a technology which brings with it powerful potential for achieving a social good while at the same time presenting distressing potential for aiding and abetting a social ill.

I will focus briefly on the good Tor can bring, just to illustrate there is some. Then I will focus on the bad so as to shed some light on why ISP-level filtering will be so utterly ineffective at dealing with Internet-based distribution of illegal content.

Tor works by thoroughly disguising the ultimate origin of traffic that hits an Internet server. In this way it can be hard for an observer to prove that a given client even communicated with a server, much less determine what was communicated. This is a far stronger protection than simply hiding the contents of the connection which is what the familiar SSL-encryption provides.

If you are a whistleblower or dissident, the ability to cover your tracks like this can be quite useful. It allows you to send e-mail with a very much reduced risk that the e-mail can be traced, by technical means, back to its physical source.

Technology, however, is agnostic to its uses. The very capability that can be used to assist dissidents and whistleblowers can be used by consumers of illegal content to cover their own tracks, thereby helping them to evade detection and prosecution by law enforcement authorities, even if law enforcement authorities have tapped the server-end of the connection.

It gets worse, however. Tor has a feature called hidden services in which both the client and server remain hidden from each other yet are still be able to exchange content. In this case, law enforcement authorities that are tapping a client connection can't determine the IP address (much less the physical location of) of the server that a client is communicating with. The reason is - the client simply doesn't know and what you don't know, you can't reveal.

It is worth pointing out that Tor's hidden service feature can also be used for good. For example, by dissidents to organise resistance to a tyrannical regime. The fact that the Internet and Tor can be used for both good and bad purposes should be an unremarkable fact about Tor, the Internet and indeed technology in general. This fact has been true of every technology ever invented and it should be no surprise that this remains true for the Internet and technologies like Tor that it has spawned.

The power inherent within technologies like Tor is ultimately why ISP-level filtering is so futile. Technologies like Tor establish overlay networks which are effectively invisible to the regular internet. Even if there was such a thing as a perfect ISP-level filter that blocked every single bit of adult content on the regular Internet, illegal content flowing on a Tor overlay network would still be unimpeded because such traffic is literally indistinguishable from regular encrypted content of innocent nature.

Presumably some people reading this are thinking. Well that's simple - just block and outlaw Tor. The problem is that although you can frustrate a public Tor network you can't realistically block Tor or technologies like Tor, since Tor traffic is indistinguishable from other Internet traffic that is used to secure Internet banking, amongst other things. To defeat Tor you would have to outlaw all use of encryption and then solve the impossible problem of detecting and blocking covertly encrypted traffic.

The Internet itself was designed to route around brutish physical damage which is what makes ISP-level filtering policies technically challenging to implement. Attempts to surveil and censor the Internet have lead to the creation of technologies such as Tor and these make attempts at ISP-level filtering irrelevant, since ISP-level filters effectively can't see Tor-level traffic.

As John Gilmore said, and it really is no joke, "The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it".

If proponents of a technical censorship regime do not believe it is futile, then it incumbent upon them to demonstrate with reasoned argument why this is so. If they are unable to do this they must at least explain why society should commit itself to such an expensive, counter-productive programme in full knowledge of its likely futility.