Censoring the Internet: Conroy plays King Canute

[This is a guest post by strangedave, yoinked with permission from a comment here. David is a board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, and many other things besides. Here, he addresses the current plan for mandatory, national, opt-out ISP-based internet filtering, proposed by Stephen Conroy (the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy).

Previous Hoyden threads on the issue:

The Great Firewall of Australia

“Civil liberties advocates = paedophiles”: Internet culture wars from the ALP.

You – You – You – Non-cookie-cutter feminist, you!

~ lauredhel]


I may not know exactly what the government’s plans are (and nor does anyone else, and I think that even goes for Senator Conroy himself, who seems to have a lot of vague ideas that are very confused on the details), but I can tell you what the technical possibilities are.

Some possibilities:

a) Blacklist only includes child porn and other actually illegal sites. Not bad from a censorship point of view, but largely pointless, and despite Conroy’s use of child porn in his rhetoric, doesn’t seem to be what he plans – such sites shouldn’t be ‘opt-out’ filtered, they should be shut down. Unfortunately, they are very good at avoiding blacklisting, and a blacklist is likely to be much less effective.

b) ACMA maintained black list expanded. This appears to be Conroy’s plan. He also appears not to have thought about it very hard, as in practical terms this is impossible. ACMA can maintain a black list with a small number of sites on it as it does now, but blocking all porn on the internet would be an absurdly large undertaking – in order to rate the tens of millions of sites ACMA would have to expand to become one of the larger government agencies, would still have its work cut out to deliver it fast enough to be useful. Even if it worked, it would be undesirable – ACMA doesn’t tell anyone what it filters, so all manner of free expression might be blocked (what if ACMA decides feminist lesbian or GLBT sites that include some explicit sexual content are ‘worse’ than the equivalent mainstream ones, and they receive more aggressive blocking? Given their veil of secrecy and aggressive resistance to FOIA requests, we might never even know), and technical considerations might still lead to huge problems as it attempted to block porn available on social networking and blogging sites like livejournal and blogger. And censoring violence has been used to block, for example, dissidents documenting violent abuse by authority figures – all, remember, under the ACMA system with no legal way to even find out what is blocked. This option is Conroy’s unrealistic fantasy world – but its still a pretty scary one.

c) Automatic rating and nannyware programs, a possible resort given that ACMA can’t possibly rate and block the entire internet for adults. These are notoriously bad at blocking access to porn (it takes only a minor amount of computer savvy to work around most of them, and spammers etc are very driven and resourceful), and notoriously prone to throwing out an awful lot of baby with that bathwater. Worry about access to sexual assault services, GLBT services, frank feminist discussion, etc This one has many of the same censorship problems that manual ACMA filtering does, only its more pervasive (because its not limited by available resources in the same way, and this mysterious automated process is making all the decisions rather than a bureaucrat that we could at least hope will look into context (though still in as mysterious, and unappealable, way as before).

d) A modest expansion of what ACMA blocks and they don’t attempt to block mainstream porn, with enforced ISP level blocking. For example ACMA doesn’t try to block all porn on the internet, just a subset that is ruled unusually troublesome, though not illegal – so, we get a crackdown on the nasty stuff (which remains available on mail order, though), but also (and probably mostly) on the kinksters and the body modders, but misogynist, objectifying, mainstream porn remains largely untouched. So, the internet becomes slower and more expensive for all, but we still get the porn, just slanted a bit more to mainstream and conservative. This alternative is also, deeply unappealing.

And in all cases, it doesn’t block porn access by anyone who wants it and has a tiny bit of computer savvy. Download compressed files from a file-sharing site, for example (and see how the slippery slope is very slippery indeed? Now we have a justification to block all filesharing sites, and the fight against porn has suddenly turned into the fight to help the record industry).

Conroy’s technical suggestions and his rhetoric at odds. The plan is always talked up as a big deal, but he generally points to the plan implemented by BT in the UK as a technical model, which is indeed a technically feasible plan (though not without its problems), but only as long as the size of the black list remains very modest, perhaps a few hundred. So, if he continues with that as his technical model, we are left with something approximating somewhere between option a) and option d), filtering that applies only to a very small, presumably particularly nasty, list of sites. That is still undesirable, as the ACMA process is so very secretive that we have only their word for it that the sites deserve censorship, and the Australian government has shown a willingness to apply censorship in a somewhat arbitrary, and occasionally outrightly political, way before, but of the options available, a pointless, secretive, white elephant that is technically incapable of making a significant difference is probably the best we can hope for. And that is why there is widespread opposition.

I’m no fan of nannyware software on the client PC end myself. I wouldn’t install anything with automated content filtering for all porn (as opposed to spam/ad filtering, which would block a lot of unintended porn) myself, though I might use something that demands more active involvement by the parent/guardian. But it is a lot more effective (because it can try to block porn as it is displayed, not downloaded), is not a ‘one size fits all in the household’ solution, it’s easy to switch if you don’t like the way it blocks sites that might have progressive content prone to blocking (like sexual assault and GLBT sites), and it’s far more technically feasible, not slowing down all internet use. That WAS the Howard government’s policy until campaign desperation set it, and its a pity that Conroy felt a need to compete by stealing policy from Family First.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, Politics, technology

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1 reply

  1. I know I said I’d stay out of the debate. But after talks with representatives from the CP80 initiative in the United States, I might just have stumbled across a solution. I am interested in hearing your thoughts. I think at the very least, the CP80 initiative should investigated by the policy makers in Australia.
    You can find the article proposing this solution at http://www.australianwomenonline.com/?p=132
    I am trying to find a solution that will be fair for everybody and I hope this goes some what to achieving this goal.
    Deborah Robinson’s last blog post..The CP80 Initiative: a viable alternative to ISP filtering in Australia

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