Speech to Sydney protest Rally, December 13th 2008
Twelve years ago I led a march on New South Wales Parliament House, protesting proposed Net censorship legislation by the state government. Much has changed since then, but unfortunately much has not.
Critics of censorship are still labelled supporters of child abuse and child pornography, even when the proposals they are criticising extend to a vastly broader range of material.
The government is still treating the Internet as a broadcasting medium, applying film classification guidelines to all online content.
Censorship proposals are still being pushed by middle-aged politicians who don't understand the Internet.
And the details of what is being proposed are once again vague and its goals unclear, making it easy for censorship proponents to evade criticisms.
Some things have changed, however. Our ministers may not know much about the Internet, but most Australians now do. Social networking has spawned protests on a much larger scale than anything we saw in 1996 or 1999 — and I want to give a big thank you here to the organisers of these rallies, as I know how much work that involves. We have support from mass organisations such as GetUp! And even the media is much better, with most journalists more knowledgeable about the Internet and not so quick to reach for easy sensationalism.
Complacency is not warranted, but I am very encouraged to see so many people here today.
It is not unusual for governments to have policies which can't be implemented or are too expensive to implement. In this case, however, we appear to have an implementation without any coherent policy behind it.
Looking at the specifications for the ISP filtering trial gives us a good idea what the government wants to do — or rather, what the government wants ISPs to do for it.
ISPs are going to be required to block the items on the ACMA blacklist, which contains some 1300 URLs and which the government contemplates increasing to 10000. This blacklist is based on complaints, which is why it is so small, but it potentially covers a huge range of material.
Content that can be prohibited by ACMA includes anything that is Refused Classification. This is not just child pornography, but includes instruction in crime, sufficiently "offensive" material dealing with sex or drug misuse, unpopular fetishes, and a range of other material. One example is Pasolini's film Salo, which is legal in pretty much every other country in the Western World, but is Refused Classification in Australia.
All X-rated content is prohibited under the ACMA scheme — that's consensual vanilla sex. And even most R-rated content is prohibited — under film classification guidelines, this can include material addressing "adult themes" such as suicide or marital difficulties!
I've seen several news reports mentioning "fears" that the filtering will be extended to "ordinary pornography". But there's no doubt at all about that: Explicit non-violent erotica is just as prohibited as child pornography as far as ACMA is concerned.
But we still don't know why the government wants to do this. What is the purpose of this scheme? What is the government trying to achieve?
It is simply not possible to make the public Internet safe for children, or even significantly safer, especially with a complaints based system that doesn't even try to cover chat or online gaming.
In addition to a mandatory blacklist, ISPs will be required to do filtering of all material unsuitable for children, which adults will be allowed to opt out of.
This is less controversial, since preventing children - or anyone else - being distressed or harmed while using the Net is a worthy cause. But this is still a very blunt, inflexible, and expensive approach to the problem.
A broad range of systems for protecting children online exist already. There are filtering products for schools and libraries. There are filtering products available for use on desktop computers. And there are ISPs who offer filtered connections to residential subscribers.
These systems are not perfect, but neither have they failed so badly that there is any kind of crisis — except for the wowsers who want to force other people to use them. If parents find them too expensive, or too complex to set up and manage, that might be an argument for subsidies or an education program.
The previous government's record in pushing filters left something to be desired, since they spent several thousand dollars for each household that ended up using the software. But a single national system filtering system could end up costing even more than that, and will also be less flexible.
If filtering is done at the backbone level, are ISPs supposed to filter everything for six year olds or for fifteen year olds? And even if ISPs can offer customisable settings, what is a family that has a fifteen year old and a six year old supposed to do?
Mandatory filtering of adult material will have an unexpected side effect. It may seem counterintuitive, but censorship of adult content will make it easier for children to access inappropriate content, and more likely that they will stumble over it inadvertently.
On one side, attempting to block adult access to X-rated content will result in an explosion of tools for bypassing filtering, and widespread publicity for them. On the other side, commercial porn sites facing the loss of their Australian customers will have a powerful incentive to publish on non-standard ports, change locations regularly, cloak their content delivery, and take other actions to hinder filtering.
These forces will undermine the filtering systems currently used by schools and parents - and any voluntary component of Cleanfeed.
When it comes to child protection and the prevention of child abuse, the Cleanfeed proposal will achieve nothing, since child abuse materials are distributed through covert channels rather than through public web sites.
Child abuse is adequately covered by existing legislation and can be left to the police. You may have seen the recent news stories about the breaking up of online child abuse networks.
If the government is serious about preventing child abuse, it should provide extra funding for the child protection unit of the Federal Police, rather than for an expensive and counter-productive censorship regime.
There are many technical problems with Internet censorship, which have been raised out by Mark Newton and other experts. These are real problems, but I am wary of opposing censorship on purely technical grounds. If the government does mandate no more than filtering of 1300 or 10000 items on the ACMA blacklist, ISPs can probably kludge together something that won't bring the Net to a complete halt, or add an impossible amount to everyone's Internet bills.
There is a principle that one should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence. This government may not intentionally be laying the foundations for a much broader censorship system, or creating a tool that can be used to selectively pressure individual businesses and individuals, but that is what this system does. Over and above its financial and economic costs and its ineffectiveness, those threats to our fundamental freedoms are the reason I oppose this Internet censorship proposal.
If anything, recent cases suggest we may have gone too far in criminalising mere possession of such items as cartoon parodies and videos of children in danger. When Steve Irwin fed a crocodile while carrying an infant, that may have been stupid — but not as stupid as making a criminal of everyone who has viewed that video on YouTube.
I understand that many Australian parents are about to receive a "Christmas bonus" aimed at stimulating the economy. How many of them are planning to spend that on filtering software? Most parents prefer to make their own parenting choices rather than having other people's morality forced on them.