13 January 2008

Censorship disguised as social protection

In late November 2007, Australia ousted its centre-right Liberal government led by John Howard in favour of a centre-left Labour government led by Kevin Rudd. All seemed well; the latent racism, bigotry, and stifling social conservatism of the Howard years looked like it would come to an end. Then in one fell swoop, that impression has fallen to pieces. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Labour's Telecommunications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has announced a plan for mandatory filtering of online content at the Internet Service Providor level in Australia (Source: the ABC and the BBC).

Firstly, let's see what exactly this entails. From the ABC: "Senator Conroy says it will be mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material" (emphasis mine). The BBC adds that "Australians wanting unfettered access to the web will have to contact their supplier to opt out of the new regime" (emphasis mine). The reasons why this constitutes complete lunacy and stupidity are multitudinous. Allow me to put forth just a few of them.

1. Who, praytell, decides what constitutes "inappropriate material"? Some government censor maintaining a blacklist who knows better than me? Funny, I thought this was a liberal democracy. And just what constitutes inappropriate? Go back a few decades and the mere discussion of homosexuality was inappropriate. Go back a little further and discrimination against women was defended as protecting society from "inappropriate" behaviour. I don't want somebody else's values being forced upon me.
2. Why is it opt-out as opposed to opt-in? If I for whatever reason felt the filter were necessary (e.g. if I maintain a primary school's Internet network), then I could opt-in to a government-provided filter. The rest of us can continue to surf the Internet uninterrupted.
3. How transparent will the opt-out process be? How do I know that if I opt-out, I won't end up on some government list of people whose online activity may be suspicious? All my activity is above board, but I value my privacy and my freedom.
4. Why is this even necessary? Conroy's statements reek of "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!", and I frankly have the voice of Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons in my head whenever I read any quotes from him. Look, if you're such a poor parent that your children are readily accessing content inappropriate for their age, then that's your problem, and it should not affect anyone else - and especially not legal adults like me who are not parents! No children use my computer, thus the entire argument that this is to protect children is a complete irrelevancy.
5. Will it even protect the children? Last year, the Howard government introduced a software filter that parents could put on their computer, only for the Sydney Morning Herald to report that a 16 year old schoolboy managed to get past it within 30 minutes, all while leaving the appearance that the filter was still on to deceive his parents. This filter will similarly be exploitable; if bloggers in China and Iran can get around much more severe and restrictive state filtering, teens with IT knowledge far superior to that of their parents will be easily able to get around the filter. While Mum and Dad are content in the knowledge the government's Internet filter is there and drop their guard, little Johnny's in the other room, bypassing the filter and downloading some steamy porn film.
6. Which brings me to my next point. There's the "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!" argument in the sense of protecting children from porn (oh no, the human body!), violence (depending upon what we mean, perhaps justifiable), and some vague and ill-defined concept of "inappropriate content". Then there's the "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!" argument in the sense of blocking access to child pornography. That sort of disgusting and exploitative filth should be combatted at every turn, but this filter does not help. Child pornography is already the subject of major international police activity, and it is safe to say that if you are accessing child pornography at the moment, this filter won't make a single jot of difference to you. This filter will not do a thing to stop sick people who get their jollies from the exploitation of children.
7. At the end of the day, you search for content on the Internet. Porn doesn't just spew onto your computer uncontrollably. Parents, if your child is looking at porn, it's because they looked for it and it's your responsibility to do something about it if you think they shouldn't be allowed to see it. Government, if people are looking up illegal content, it is your job to 1. prosecute those making and hosting the illegal content and 2. prosecute those who are actively searching for this content. This should not involve law-abiding Internet users, i.e. the vast majority, having to opt-out of a filter.

This filter will almost certainly not impact my day-to-day Internet activity. However, it strikes me as a gross breach of individual freedom, not to mention a staggering waste of taxpayer money and IT specialist time. Australia's Internet is quite backwards enough, thank you very much. I would urge every Australian citizen reading this to write to Senator Conroy as well as your local member and state senators to protest this moronic decision.