Paved with good intentions

Filed under Letters ~ by Editor on  28 Jul 2012
The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it ~ John Gilmore

Few in Newcastle will recall Australia’s climb from cultural isolation and international scorn 40 years ago, when Liberal politician Don Chipp, Minister for Customs and Excise, abolished censorship of printed material, unbanned novels like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and allowed the sale of mild nudity in (“but I buy it for the articles”) Playboy magazine.

It wasn’t the consequent and predictable flood of filth and trash that mattered, but acknowledgement by government that Australians were adult enough to not indulge it like animals. The core principle, however, is that individuals decide what is literary or artistic, not a government committee, or moralistic lobby.

Decades later, apparently oblivious to lessons of history, Stephen Conroy, Labor Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is reversing course, steering the nation back into unsettled waters of division and controversy in a likely futile attempt to censor the world’s most uncontrollable medium: The Internet.

The censorship blacklist that will hide evils of humankind from Australians’ gentile appreciation was leaked to a whistleblower website, Wikileaks, who scathingly described our flirtation with tyranny in the name of public safety thus:

“While Wikileaks.org is used to exposing secret government censorship in developing countries, we now find Australia acting like a democratic backwater.

Apparently without irony, ACMA threatens fines of up to $11,000 a day for linking to sites on its secret, unreviewable, censorship blacklist — a list the government hopes to expand into a giant national censorship machine.

History shows that secret censorship systems, whatever their original intent, are invariably corrupted into anti-democratic behavior.

This week saw Australia joining China and the United Arab Emirates as the only countries censoring Wikileaks”

NewcastleOnHunter can be fined and removed from the Internet by merely linking to – perhaps merely mentioning – Wikileaks, or their page offering download of the ACMA blacklist.

For when this perfectly legal and internationally lauded information portal published the SECRET list of websites that Australians can no longer visit, the Australian government promptly added the Danish page of Wikileaks.org to the list!

Corruption of intent has already begun.

Just as 40 years ago we had a panel of altruistic saints who exposed themselves to the horrors of film and literature that we might romp unsullied and carefree in theatre and bookshop, now we have a  mysterious, secret, self-sacrificing ACMA volunteer squad imperilling their morals in cyberspace so parents may relax with a beer and the tele whilst their children do (what do they do?) on those inscrutable silvery screens into the small hours.

Launching the argument against Internet censorship, Nicholas Woodford argues the danger and futility of censorship, and questions the assumptions and precepts on which the scheme is based.

Novocastrians,

Stephen Conroy announced plans to implement a "mandatory internet filter" in 2010 for all Australians.

This filter will block all "refused classification content," "illegal content" and content members of the public deem unsuitable.

What is blocked will be placed on the ACMA blacklist which no member of the public can access.

In June 2009 the blacklist was leaked and proven to contain many legally viewable websites in Australia including a dentist’s surgery, gambling and alcohol services, legal pornography, drug support lines and other such content.

Stephen Conroy personally consulted Christian lobbies and other special interests groups before the announcement, asking for more content added to the blacklist over time.

As person who works in Information Technology industry and enjoys freedom of speech, I feel compelled to remove the government’s sugar coating and ask some very serious questions regarding the filter.

My concerns are as follows:

  •  This internet filter will block any content "Refused Classification" with more content added to the list over time.

The Internet changes, unlike classification board content. How is this government going to keep track of the 900 billion pages changed each day. Content appropriate for all Australians will get blocked, illegal content will slip through and freedom of speech will be breached, good intentions or not.

· The ACMA are offering grants to ISP’s for blocking additional content, if that content is unsuitable for children.

What kinds of content does the government considers inappropriate for children? Shouldn’t the job of deciding what is and isn’t appropriate be up to individual parents ?

This scheme encourages lazy parenting, through a hands off approach at ISP level. Personal Firewalls with good parental education are safer, cheaper and more reliable methods of protecting our children.

  •  A website can be added to the blacklist by any member of the public.

This will allow special interest groups to target any content they find offensive by committee, allowing a minority to dictate to the majority over time, without majority consultation.

Logistically it doesn’t seem to work. How often will these public lists be checked? Will the sites just be blocked ?  Will it be a case of guilty until proven innocent, due to a high volume of requests ?  What about abuses of this system for online bullying ? What right does someone have to censor someone else viewpoint online if they disagree with it?

i believe this process is a tool for censorship and should not be tolerated by all good-thinking Australians.

  •  The ACMA blacklist is not available to the public, and no public transparency will ever occur.

The leaked ACMA blacklist from June 2009 (which the government forced all websites to remove or face $12,000 fines per view) featured many legal websites including one for a Queensland dentist as well as drug, gambling and pornographic web sites completely legal inside of Australia.

The June list was not effective in banning the right types of content.
How will this new list be any different? Is the Australia public supposed to take the government on its word, with no information at all ?  Without the transparency, there can be no real accountability. Committee or no committee.

· Restriction of illegal content online is not effective in stopping crime.

The internet filter will make things harder for law enforcement. HTML tracking is one of the easiest ways to set up stings and catch online criminals in the act. If criminals can’t access those sites to get caught, how will the police catch them?

· Accidental Blocking of Legal Content

The filter trial has an impressive 100% block rate, with only 4% of legal sites blocked.

But what happens when that 4% is applied to an entire country, when every Australian is accessing different sites?  It could represent a million pages, maybe even 10 million pages blocked per year.

Here’s a worse case scenario:

Imagine a drug addict needing to access a local drug help website. The new filter has accidentally blocked that page. The person couldn’t get to the information they required and died as a result.
(Since illegal drug content will be blocked, some legal sites referring to those drugs will get blacklisted in that 4% category by mistake.)

It’s worth noting, a block by the government to any website which allows Australians to comment or read comments would be in direct violation of the UN declaration of human rights (Specifically articles 19 and 18).

I find the idea of this being acceptable by our government shameful.

  •  Slowing down the internet speed and increasing internet costs.

Based on six years of I.T. training and Cisco Networking Certification I feel qualified to say this trial seemed custom designed to show good results. The previous trial held earlier this year (which had a silent release to the public from an ISP) showed 30-90% speed reductions and high levels of accidental blocking.

Our internet is already one of the slowest in the world (Australian average 512kbps, world average is 2,000kpbs) decreasing our speed further is not the way forward.

Secondly, this all costs money.

ISP’s are private companies and therefore its illogical to assume the government is going to pay for their filtering indefinitely. At some point internet service charges will go up and we’ll be stuck with the bill. These extra costs will prevent new ISP’s entering the market in 4 years time (once the bailout stops) reducing competition in the marketplace.

  •  Who is the target of this filter ?

The trial makes it very clear the filter is easily bypassed.

-This filter is not targeted to criminals or teenagers. The trial documents prove the filter its only useful for blocking "accidental" clicks and is not effective for the majority of content.

-This filter is not targeted at protecting children or adults in any real way. The trial documents show the filter does not block peer-to-peer file sharing (bittorrent or usenet), encrypted traffic or SSL. It only blocks HTML traffic, which is not where the large majority of illegal content is distributed.

-This filter is not targeted to pirates and illegal content distributors. Why is something which doesn’t work for most illegal content, which is easily circumvented, worth $400 million dollars of taxpayers money ?

  •  Its a dangerous precedent

The filter puts in place infrastructure for future governments to engage in internet censorship, using a blacklist without public consultation.

According to the trial, the blacklists will be updated 24/7 directly to internet hardware from the government; encrypted so no one can see their contents. A future government could very well restrict freedom of speech in any number of ways without public awareness.

No other democratic government has an internet filter due to the conflict of interest it poses. The power of controlling what a population see’s online can be easily abused by governments with examples including Iran or China.

Who could say when the tipping point will occur? Once the filter is in, it’ll be too late.

  •  There is no demonstrated need for this filter

Illegal content will always exist – filter or no filter. Blocking illegal content will just push content further underground, making it harder to police. The majority of illegal content is not blocked by this filter.

When faced with the removal of free speech through accidental blocking of legal sites, the creation of infrastructure for future government censorship without public approval, the ability for special interests to wage a censorship campaign against their targets by committee, the reduction in effectiveness for hunting internet criminals, higher internet fee’s due to demands on ISP’s, decreased internet speed and the filter being easily circumvented while simultaneously being not being able to block the majority of illegal content on the web …

I ask again: why are we doing this ?

Censoring the internet is a black mark on our international reputation. Joining Iran and China (regardless of good intent) is a very poor political move.

I ask all Novocastrians to write to their members of parliament. Write to Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy and express their outrage over this filter.

Don’t believe all the sugar coating, this filter is a waste of time and a tool for future censorship.

The Government claims the filter is not designed to curtail freedom of speech."  -Government Press release

          The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Thank you for reading,
-Nicholas Alexander Woodford

Consensus?

What we might call “the Internet community” is soundly and universally opposed to Australia’s proposed Internet filter. This community is mainly technically-inclined, and ranges from small webmasters like myself, IT professionals like Nicholas, and no less than Google the corporation.

At Google we are concerned by the Government’s plans to introduce a mandatory filtering regime for Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Australia, the first of its kind amongst western democracies.* Our primary concern is that the scope of content to be filtered is too wide.

We have a bias in favour of people’s right to free expression. While we recognise that protecting the free exchange of ideas and information cannot be without some limits, we believe that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.

Some limits, like child pornography, are obvious. No Australian wants that to be available – and we agree. Google, like many other Internet companies, has a global, all-product ban against child sexual abuse material and we filter out this content from our search results. But moving to a mandatory ISP filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.

Iarla Flynn, Head of Policy, Google Australia

* Germany and Italy have mandatory ISP filtering, however in both cases they are of a clearly limited scope. In Germany, the scope is child abuse material and in Italy, it is child abuse material and unlawful gambling sites. Australia’s proposed regime would uniquely combine a mandatory framework and a much wider scope of content, the first of its kind in the democratic world.

Nothing less than the high ground and big thinking from former High Court judge Michael Kirby, declaring:

.. it could stop the "Berlin Walls of the future" from being knocked down.”

It is opposed in some circles, including by some of the big service providers on the basis of this being the thin end of the wedge of the Government moving in to regulating the actual internet itself,” he said.

Once you start doing that you get into the situation of Burma and Iran where the Government is taking control of what people hear and what information they get.”

And it wouldn’t be a freedom issue unless the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties’ Michael Cope, hadn’t said the internet filter could threaten "the search for truth, democracy, self realisation and autonomy for individuals."

Internet ‘community’ commentary was quite blunt and comprehensively dismissive of Minister Conroy’s cunning but clumsy attempt to smear every opponent as in league with, or supportive of, child pornographers.

Commentator Stilgherrian places Conroy’s persistence in perspective with this theory (or fact):

.. the risks are the very same ones that child protection experts keep banging on about. Bullying by their peers. Abuse from within their own homes and families. Poverty and its associated health risks. Obesity.

But this is politics, not child protection.

This policy is probably about a Senate preferences deal between Labor and Family First. It’s certainly about the political demands of a small but vocal and well-connected minority of conservative Christian voters and the devilishly evil internet.

The political solution has already been chosen: compulsory censorship by an automatic filter. The political goal is to sell that policy to the voters

Season IT security pro Pinkerton is surgical:

You made the point repeatedly during the Q&A program that the ACMA list has existed for nine years and as such is nothing new.

This list as it stands today is symptomatic of its impotence in the current landscape. Once the proposed filter is in place, then this list becomes exponentially more critical. At this point it is certain to grow rapidly, and require a team of experts to maintain and manage.

Inevitably, the content any government of the day deems "inappropriate" shifts over time, and whilst we all agree wholeheartedly that child pornography should be blocked, persons, often with powerful lobby groups, will push hard for its use in promoting their own political agendas.

The debate goes mainstream, for readers who are not fazed by all the techies protests, and who are wondering what’s so wrong with blocking the plethora of disgusting material we all stumble on from time to time.

The principle is censorship, by the way, really is just censorship. A little convenience for now sinks us further into a narrow and manipulated society. It further dumbs the nation down, we become less competitive, less attractive… So goes that argument.

Mainstream is Kate Lundy, for example, former shadow IT minister, who bravely dissents from minister Conroy’s ‘crusade.’

So my plan is to advocate within my party an approach which recognises the openness principle that underpins the Internet as I have argued for in the past. This discussion is rightly an internal one, and I have no doubt that the public will be expressing their view as they have already started to do. In this regard I urge constructive and sensible debate. Remember that Minister Conroy is implementing an election commitment determined by the whole Cabinet.

Kate Lundy – with all 380-odd comments!

In a follow-up post, Ms Lundy condenses the pros and cons in another must-read for those who wish to understand the furore, and even if it’s true that the filter works, or not.

I note that a great deal of concern was expressed in comments about the practical limitations of a blacklist filter and how this could mislead parents into thinking all risks were mitigated.

Again, this time 110 comments and growing

NSW MLC Penny Sharpe if considerably blunter:

I add my voice to the many that understand that the Federal Government’s proposals to filter the Internet are:

  • a waste of time
  • a waste of money
  • a false promise to parents that will not stop kids being exposed to undesirable content online
  • a move towards censorship that a democratic and free nation like Australia should reject

The proposed Internet filter creates a diversion from tackling broader issues of how the online environment (which also includes mobile phones and games) is rapidly changing social norms, expectations and behaviour.

There are urgent issues that need to be addressed: protecting children from inappropriate material, protecting privacy, cyberstalking and bullying, how to protect citizens from identity theft to name just a few.

The solution to these issues is not a mandatory filter

Penny Sharpe, and several hundred comments.

What’s surprising is the immense volume of comments. Surely they’re not the usual rent-a-crowd. After all, it’s only a blog, why bother? And this isn’t the party line, which such crowds support, do they not?

It’s good to see so much passion about freedom in a democratic backwater!

[Editor’s note: Please, opposing views are welcome in the comments. Always keep in mind the article above is, after all, against censorship first and foremost, and not ‘pro’ anything except freedom of choice.]



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