Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It is about censorship and it does matter.

Some commentators would have you believe that the only reason to be worried about the proposed mandatory filter is that a) it will be ineffective and b) it might cost something. They urge us to back away from the censorship arguments because these are the "least effective" arguments for opposing the filter.

This is rubbish.

Apart from anything else, mere ineffectiveness is not going to motivate Australians to resist the filter. The Government runs many worthy, if ineffective, anti-obesity campaigns. People won't actively resist public expenditure on an ineffective project unless they actually object to the project in principle. Assuming that the Australian public cares enough about an ineffective proposal to vote against it for reasons of ineffectiveness alone is assuming a level of care that, frankly, has no basis in reality.

Yes, some comparisons which suggest that Australian filtering will be identical to that imposed Iran, China and Saudi Arabia are somewhat overblown. However, as I argue in another post, these examples do serve to illustrate limiting cases and help to remind us that Australia is planning to move far closer to these examples than any other western democracy.

However, to suggest that censorship concerns as a whole are ill-founded is extremely dangerous to the cause.

If your only opposition to the filter is that it is ineffective, then you have little reason in principle to resist an effective filter.

Make no mistake, the Government will implement an ineffective filter, if it is given a chance. However, an ineffective filter will never survive long term. Once the Government has established the right to filter, this or future governments will inevitably use the very ineffectiveness of the filter to argue that a more obtrusive filtering regime is required in order to address the deficiency. Any suggestion that the Government will suddenly be overcome by free-speech zeal and rollback an ineffective filter is pure fantasy - Governments rarely, if ever relinquish a power once granted.

The point of resisting the filter now is not because the practical consequences of the filter being implemented are dire - most people simply won't notice, precisely because the filter will be utterly ineffective. The point of resisting the filter now is to oppose the principle that the Government has the right to decide for itself what Australians may and may not read on the Internet.

If we don't resist now, then when?

If we accept the Government's right to filter ineffectively now, then we will have no reason - in principle - to resist a Government attempt to filter more effectively in the future. If we concede the right to filter now, we will never claw it back.

That's why censorship arguments matter. That's why they matter now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The relevance of comparisons to Iran, China and Saudi Arabia

In the campaign against mandatory ISP-level filtering, much has been made of comparisons with Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

In truth, much of this rhetoric is over-blown. If the mandatory ISP-level filtering is implemented it is unlikely to be as heavy handed or as arbitrary as these regimes.

On the other hand, these regimes still serve as a useful marker - try to name another Western democracy that is attempting to impose a mandatory ISP-level filter against such a broad range of material, and you will be hard pressed to find one.

Australia may not be marching to exactly the same place as Iran, China and Saudi Arabia - it may well stop before it gets there. But let's be clear - there is no other Western democracy standing between Australia, where it wants to go and where Iran, China and Saudi Arabia already are.

If it goes there Australia will be leading other western democracies down a path of increasingly authoritarian interference in online media consumption. This is not healthy, especially when the Government has yet to demonstrate any social utility whatsoever for the mandatory filter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Re: Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd

Back in October 2008, a correspondent reported that a Google search for "Kevin Rudd" produced a Google result set that included some filtered results.

I was intrigued by this and wondered whether it might be possible to use Google to discover more about the contents of the page. I documented what I discovered in this post: "Google Blocks Site Containing Disparaging Joke About Kevin Rudd"

In light of the recent news that Google had decided to filter out a search result containing a link to a page on Encyclopedia Dramatica that allegedly contained racist remarks about Aborigines, I decided to see what the Google search I performed back in 2008 revealed.

Interestingly the result set for "Kevin Rudd is a bureaucratic" contains two forum posts neither of which are now blocked. One from a site called Chess Chat and another from a site called Let's talk dirty

What's interesting is that the post on "Let's talk dirty" dates from around 12 October 2008, which was a about a week before my investigations started. When I visited the site today, it contained banner ads linking to sites that offered incest material. I note, however, that the moderation guidelines for the site itself which were last revised on 23 April 2009 exclude material that roughly correspond to the Australian Refused Classification criteria.

Given the apparent nature of the "Let's Talk Dirty" site, and the close correspondence of dates, it seems at least plausible that it was "Let's Talk Dirty" that was the subject of the October 2008 results set filtering performed by Google.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Visualizing the issues

Alison Ruth has created a pictorial representation of the filtering topic space. This might be useful when thinking about any answers you get to the 10 questions about the mandatory ISP-level filter..

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A curious case of government pressure


News today of an attempt by the Canadian government to get a German ISP to censor a political parody site that was critical of the Canadian Government.

I'd be wary of making too much of this in relation to the Australian debate for several reasons.

The Canadian Government agency does not have jurisdiction over the German ISP and there is no suggestion, as far as I can tell, that they asked the German Government to assist with the censorship action. In other words: the Canadian Government wasn't using its monopoly on the use of force on Canadian soil to force the German ISP to act in a certain way.

Secondly, the collateral damage caused to the 4500 sites is most likely the result of incompetence on the German ISPs part, rather than the Canadian Government's part.

Yes, it does illustrate the dangers of a Government that thinks it can throw its weight around, but it doesn't really have too much to say about the Australian debate since it wasn't a case of the state acting against a commercial entity within the state. It was a case of an agency of a state asking a commercial entity of another state for assistance. One can argue that the German ISP should have told the Canadian Government to bugger off, but that is a different argument.

10 Questions About The Mandatory ISP-level Filter

Readers might like to consider using this list of questions as the basis of a letter to their local Labor MP or Senator.
  1. Has the probability of inadvertent exposure to Refused Classification material by adults been quantified? If not, is this probability judged to be: low, moderate or high?
  2. Have the consequences of inadvertent exposure to Refused Classification material by adults been measured? Are these thought to be minor, major or serious?
  3. Has the quantity of potentially Refused Classification material in existence on the Internet been estimated in either absolute or relative terms?
  4. Does the Government have an estimate or measure of the percentage of potentially Refused Classification material on the Internet that is currently Refused Classification? What is that estimate?
  5. Does the Government have a coverage goal for the Refused Classification list in terms of the percentage of potentially Refused Classification material that is actually refused classification? What is that goal?
  6. Is the Government concerned that in exempting X-18+ material from the specifications of the mandatory filter that it may be implicitly condoning the consumption of X-18+ rated materials by Australian adults?
  7. Does the Government believe it is acceptable for Australian adults who encounter X-18+ or potentially Refused Classification material on the Internet to treat such material as not Refused Classification until such time as ACMA makes a definitive decision otherwise?
  8. Does the Government believe that Australian adults who encounter such X-18+ or potentially Refused Classification material should use their own judgment to decide for themselves whether they should remain exposed to such material?
  9. If the Government does believe that all Australian adults should retain for themselves the responsibility of deciding what material is, and is not, acceptable to view, why is the mandatory filter required?
  10. What political benefit does the ALP gain by successfully sheparding enabling legislation for the mandatory ISP-level filter through both houses of parliament?

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Government blessed smut?

According to the Government's latest FAQ, one of the measures the Government is now proposing is:

(The) Introduction of mandatory internet service provider (ISP) level filtering of content that is rated Refused Classification (RC) in order to reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure.

Without presenting any supporting evidence whatsoever, the Government would have us believe that the probability of inadvertent exposure by adults to refused classification material is high or that the consequence of that exposure, should it occur, is serious. Or both. Otherwise, why would such a draconian measure be necessary?

Suppose we suspend disbelief at the sheer flimsiness of the premise for a second and assume that it is true that adult Australians are, in fact, placed in peril by inadvertent exposure to Refused Classification material like Ken Park or euthanasia texts like "The Peaceful Pill".

Let us suspend disbelief even further and assume that ACMA will eventually discover all the potentially Refused Classification material that exists on the internet. ACMA, however, is not a machine and we are assured that all classification decisions will be subject to due process. Due process, being what it is, takes time. Evidence suggests that ACMA can currently take as much as 64 days to action a complaint.

So, at any given moment, there will be a lot of X-18 rated material (which is not subject to the mandatory filter) and as yet refused to be classified material that adults may be inadvertently exposed to.

Suppose now that an adult Australian is inadvertently exposed to this material. Should they:

  1. report the material immediately to ACMA and let ACMA decide whether the material is Refused Classification, or,
  2. assume that any material not blocked must, by definition, not be Refused Classification and is therefore ok to view

An adult electing to report material without first carefully considering whether the material is RC would be highly irresponsible. Apart from anything else, this would flood the ACMA classification machinery with material that probably won't be classified as RC. If the ACMA classification processes are overloaded, they may well fail to detect actually illegal material that should have been referred to police.

Equally, an adult who assumed that any material not blocked is implicitly not Refused Classification, is unlikely to find support from a court which will insist that, as an adult, they are entirely capable of making responsible judgments for themselves.

Furthermore, the Government would surely be distressed if Australians came to believe that X-18+ material, not being subject to a mandatory filter, had an implicit blessing from the Government as being acceptable for Australian adults to view.

Given that abdication of responsible use of the Internet by adults is unacceptable, the only option left (by definition) is for the Government to assume, and indeed, require that all adult Australians who are inadvertently exposed to potentially "Refused Classification" material must act responsibly and decide for themselves whether it is appropriate to remain exposed to such material.

What, then, is the point of the mandatory filter?

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