Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Inadvertently exposed: the ALP's obsession with universal censorship

When you are a Government of a Western nation about to introduce a mandatory censorship regime unlike anything else in the Western world it is a good idea to try to play up comparisons with social democracies like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland and our Commonwealth cousins the UK and Canada. It is also good to downplay comparisons with authoritarian regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia or China.

So, naturally enough the Government's FAQ about their current filtering policy attempts to do this by asking the rhetorical question: "How does Australia's approach compare with other western democracies?"

It's a good question, but sadly for the Government the answer only serves to emphasise what is so wrong about the Government's proposal. In all the countries listed, not one has a mandatory filtering scheme. In all the countries listed, not one attempts to filter anything other than strictly illegal child abuse material.

Just as revealing is the list they did not enumerate - the list of 30 or so Western democracies which, like Australia, do not presently have any filtering regime.

And, of course, it is no surprise to learn that the Government does not list the countries that do have mandatory filtering regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.

Comparing Australia's proposed policy with other Western democracies actually highlights how draconian this policy is. Why is it that Australia is the only Western demoncracy to propose a mandatory filter? Why is it that the scope of Australia's filter is so uniquely broad that it will include material that is actually legal to own and view?

Part of the problem is that Australia is trying to do with 'taste' police, what other countries do with real police. Other countries treat child abuse as what it is: a horrific crime against children. Australia is trying to deal with the problem of child abuse by dealing with it as a content classification problem. The Government would have us believe that it can do something meaningful about the problem of child abuse by devoting more effort to content classification and then ensuring that content classification decisions are riguourously enforced at our digital borders (e.g. on the other side of the pipes into your living room).

Or, at least, it used to believe this. It is clear that the Government now understands that a mandatory filter can't contribute to fighting child abuse because it now states that the purpose of the mandatory ISP-level filter is merely to "reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure" to Refused Classification material. It readily admits that a technically competent user with the motivation to do so can circumvent a mandatory filter.

However, even this more modest aim is still far more draconian than those of other Western democracies that have some kind of filtering policy. These countries seek only to minimize inadvertent exposure to illegal child sexual abuse material which is a far more restricted category of material than that which is rated Refused Classification by the Australian National Classification Code.

Consider this: in 2003 Margaret Pomeranz, the ABC's film reviewer, attempted to give the Refused Classification film "Ken Park" a screening before a crowd in Balmain, Sydney. Police physically intervened to prevent her breaking the law. Yet it is exactly material of this kind that will be subject to Conroy's censorwall. Is Stephen Conroy prepared to call Margaret Pomeranz, a purveyor of "the worst of the worst" kind of internet filth? Or is she instead a decent person who strongly believes the National Classification Board made an error when it gave "Ken Park" an RC rating?

The ALP's policy on ISP-level filtering has changed on numerous occasions since it was first drafted in 2006. At that time the policy was about mandating that ISPs offer a cleanfeed to families that wanted it. In December 2007, it was about mandating that ISP's impose a cleanfeed that people could opt out of. In 2008, the policy changed again and opt-out ceased to be an option.

All along we were told that a mandatory filter was necessary to prevent Australians who seek child pornopgraphy from viewing it.

The Government has since learnt that a filter will be utterly ineffective for that task, primarily because most child pornography is traded on networks that are invisible to an HTTP-based filter. It now, at least, readily admits that the filter can be technically circumvented with ease. So, in recognition of these cold hard facts, the Government now insists that the mandatory filter is no longer about preventing criminal access to illegal material. It is now merely about preventing inadvertent exposure of ordinary citizens to Refused Classification material.

Think about that.

The Government insists that it must filter your Internet connection to prevent you being inadvertently exposed to material, such as the movie "Ken Park", that the National Classification Board has deemed unsuitable for any other classification.

How paternalistic. How patronising.

There would be less (but not much less) disquiet about the mandatory filter if the Australian government chose to target, like the European governments it wants to compare itself to, only strictly illegal material. Yet the Government, despite the wriggle room afforded by changing its position once more, has explicitly decided not to go down this path. It has deliberately chosen to continue down the path of ensuring that the National Classification Code is uniformly and universally applied to citizens as if each and every one of them were themselves film and literature distributors.

People who are "inadvertently exposed" to films such as "Ken Park" are at little risk of abusing children because of that exposure. People who deliberately access child sexual abuse material are. Making it more difficult for Margaret Pomeranz to download "Ken Park" from the web does precisely nothing about the problem of child sexual abuse, irrespective of Minister Conroy's persistent angry insistence otherwise.

People wishing to publish this in other fora should contact the author to obtain permission.


NotSoAnonymousDave said...

The numbers just don't add up

Apparently the ISP filters can only block 10000 urls before running into performance problems. Considering that the web is 1 trillion urls and growing at a rate of a billion urls a day. The Enex test lab report had an over-blocking rate of 3.4 percent which means that 34 billion urls that are not supposed to be blocked will be blocked.

That's like saying, lets put 34 billion innocent people in jail for the crimes of the 10000.

Jon Seymour said...

To be accurate, I am not sure that the report demonstrated what the saturation point of the mandatory filter was. It is true that they were only tested to 8Mbps and to the limit of 10000 URLs.

The 3.4% over blocking rate you refer to was in relation to the optional part of the filter and it was also this part of the filter that suffered quantifiable performance degradation. It is also the only part of the filter that is in any way useful to parents who think they need the Government's help to control their children's internet use. Still, if parents want to trade performance and accuracy for some level of protection for their children, I can't argue (too much) with that.

My main beef is with the mandatory filter. The Government now admits it serves no useful crime fighting purpose. The National Classification Board does not rule whether material is legal or not. Only whether it is in good taste. The Government wishes to use the NCB's decisions on taste as a fiat to decide what Australians can and cannot read.

This is the overreach of a paternalistic Government on a massive scale and must not stand.