Sunday, January 6, 2008

Deconstructing Stephen Conroy, peddler of filters.

In this article, I analyse the recent announcement by the Australian Government to impose a mandatory filtering requirement on all Internet service providers. I show how the tactics of spin, fear and distortion are used to attack critics of the proposal and I question whether, if child pornography is the target, a policy of improved monitoring might be more effective than one of censorship.

At the moment we view this as an extra safeguard. Wer'e not suggesting for a moment that this is the only thing that the Government should be doing. We have already seen home-based filtering being championed by the previous government, we need education campaigns and we need increased policing. But, as the 16 year old who wasn't an expert computer hacker demonstrated, he could disable the home-based filters in 30 minutes. This is something that parents understand that there is parental responsibility necessary but the Rudd government was elected on a policy that we will be working with the industry to introduce mandatory ISP filtering, so that sites that involve child pornography and truly violent material can be blocked at an ISP-level.

Senator Stephen Conroy, ABC News Radio, 2007/12/31

Senator Conroy motivates the discussion for the need for mandatory ISP-level filtering by using the example of a 16-year old who could subvert PC-based filters in 30 minutes and suggests, by implication, that this is a problem that the Government needs to solve. He then states that mandatory ISP-level filtering is required to block access to "child pornography and truly violent material" as if the two problems are the same thing.

Senator Conroy's attempt to conflate, by juxtaposition, the problem of child access to adult pornography and adult access to child pornography is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. The two problems are very different and require very different solutions. Yet the Government is offering only one blunt solution - mandatory ISP-level filtering for all residential feeds by default

Senator Conroy also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the technical capability of ISP-level filtering - any reasonable ISP-level filter could also be subverted in under 30 minutes, so introducing mandatory ISP-filters will do nothing to prevent childrens' access to adult pornography or adults' access to child pornography. Stronger filters might reasonably do a better job but only totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and China have the power to implement these for the entire population.

The question is reasonably asked: is the Minister proposing an ineffective filter or a totalitarian one? Despite the Minister's pleading to the contrary, there is no such thing as an effective and democratic filter. The Minister must choose between freedom and effectiveness. If he is only offering an ineffective filter, then his policy is fraudulent and deserves to be exposed as such. If he is offering a totalitarian filter, then that too should be exposed.

There is some evidence that the Government wants a totalitarian one. When asked to respond to the charge that Australia was proceeding down a path similar to China and Saudi Arabia he pointedly did not deny the charge. Instead, he tried to evade the charge by calling attention to the most extreme forms of pornography he aims to filter and postured as if this is the sole target of his policy. From this posture, with spin Goebbels would be proud of, he attempted to tar anyone who criticises the policy on free speech grounds as an advocate of free access to child pornography.

Well, we make no apology for wanting to block sites that contain child pornography and truly violent material that is out there. If looking at child pornography is defined a free speech then we are going to take issue with that. We are committed to working with the industry. We are going to fund a trial to see how this can work. We've said that we will find the best possible way to work with the industry to ensure that this disrupts the world of the Internet is as minimal a way as possible. But people shouldn't confuse peddling child pornography with freedom of speech.

The Government's plans are apparently to block a far wider range of material than simply child pornography. If this were not the case, why is there an opt-out option and why did he motivate the discussion by pointing out that children can disable PC-level filters?

Whatever the targets of the Government's policy, its critics on free speech grounds are concerned about the mechanism by which the censorship will be achieved not what material will be blocked. The only person in this debate equating free access to child pornography with free speech is the Minister himself and he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

To be very clear, no-one is arguing that access to child pornography should be free and unrestricted. On the contrary, such access is, and should be, illegal. The debate is about whether a liberal democracy requires such access to be physically blocked by an all-pervasive censorship mechanism that is necessarily opaque and inherently vulnerable to abuse by this and future governments.

The Government's policy also betrays a fundamental lack of trust in the moral integrity of the entire Australian population. A Government that distrusts its citizens is necessarily one that can be justly accused of totalitarian paranoia. Although, as the saying goes, if you have a choice between cock-up and conspiracy, cock-up is usually the better explanation.

The people who peddle this sort of filth are very smart individuals. They spend their time trying to wheedle away into people's homes and push this material onto people.

With these words, the Minister attempts to incite hysteria about the danger of pornography by claiming that pornography is pushed into Australian homes by nefarious peddlers of filth. This is an appalling rhetorical fallacy. If there is pornography in Australian homes today, it is largely there because it was pulled there by willing consumers of it.

While it is true that there is a small risk of receiving an unsolicited invitation to view pornography that is pushed onto unwilling recipients by e-mail, this problem is already quite effectively dealt with by spam filters and the simple mechanism of switching off the "display images" feature of one's e-mail client. Or, rather, not switching it on in the first place. It is also a problem that won't be dealt with by filtering HTTP connections. The fact of the matter is that 99.9% of pornography that enters into Australian homes does so because it is pulled there by consumers who want to view it. Despite the Minister's claims to the contrary you don't have to be very smart to sell pornography - it sells itself. That's why there is so much of it. It is also why any effort to block access to it will be futile.

People who want to consume pornography can and will use the numerous covert channels which are already available. Children who are not intent on subverting an ISP-based filter are already more easily and better protected by existing PC-based filters, since these filters can aggressively deploy content-based analysis which can detect a far broader range of material than a URL blacklist ever will; children who are intent on subverting an ISP-based filter will easily be able do so as anyone who has a basic understanding of the technology knows.

Given the Minister's slippery use of the term "filth", perhaps I have misunderstood which "peddlers of filth" the Minister was talking about in this instance. Perhaps he was only talking about the really evil kind, the peddlers of child pornography. These people are, admittedly, quite smart. They rarely, if ever, conduct mass marketing campaigns for their perverted wares for the very simple reason that to do so would draw unwelcome attention to themselves from law enforcement authorities. So, this kind of filth is even less likely to be pushed into Australian homes. The sad fact of the matter is, if it is there at all, it was pulled there by someone who should be charged under existing legislation. However, while this may be an argument for improved monitoring and effective law-enforcement, it is emphatically not an argument for censorship. In fact, censorship may well be counter-productive since it would cause every deviant who is not already using covert channels to start using them. If this happened, the job of law enforcement would be made even harder than it is today.

If the Minister is really serious about tackling child pornography he should be advocating mechanisms that will effectively confront it. As I suggested above monitoring, not censorship, is likely to be far more effective at dealing with child pornography and censorship may actually be counter-productive. If the Minister really is concerned about protecting children from this scourge, why isn't he advocating the best possible policy for job? Why is he advocating the potentially counter-productive policy of censorship instead?

Is the Minister, in fact, a philterphile *?

* philterphile(n): one whose obsessive totalitarian tendencies leads them to advocate mandatory filtering of everyone else's Internet feed.

I would like to unashamedly request that anyone who can give this analysis a wider distribution than this blog, to please do so. While there is undeniably a vain reason for wanting this, I do somewhat immodestly believe that my arguments are well-reasoned and should be placed in front of as wide an audience as possible.


Freman said...

I'd love to have this post in a pamphlet format - or even permission reproduce this post in pamphlet format.

Jon Seymour said...


Feel free to republish this. Would appreciate that it is properly attributed and that a link to the page &/or website is included.

Merry Xmas to you.