Mandatory Australian Internet Censorship: Conroy’s Bait and Switch

[Edit 24 Oct 08: The current post on this issue can be found here: “Wild claims hysteria enthusiastic commentary on internet censorship: Ludlam in Senate Estimates”]

Australia’s Labor government is now set on instituting mandatory across-the-board internet censorship for every internet connection, with no opt-out facility. If this eventuates, we will join such countries as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

When Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, first floated the idea of Australia-wide internet censorship, he reassured us over and over and over again that the censorship would be opt-out.

The story kept changing. One minute only homes and schools would have a “cleanfeed”; the next, all internet connections would be filtered unless they opted out. Now, we hear that all internet connections in Australia will be subject to filtering, with people able only to opt for a more or a less restrictive blacklist.

This week from the Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), a non-profit online civil rights organisation:

The filter, which will be mandatory for all Australians, was initially touted as a “cyber-safety” measure for homes with children. However, recent comments by experts have revealed the existence of a second, secret black list, that would apply even to homes that managed to opt out of the child-safe filtering scheme.

“The news for Australian Internet users just keeps getting worse,” said EFA Board member Colin Jacobs. “We have legitimate concerns with the creeping scope of this unprecedented interference in our communications infrastructure. It’s starting to look like nothing less than a comprehensive program of real-time Internet censorship.”

The scheme seems at odds with the Government’s campaign promise to improve the speed and availability of Australian Broadband. The Government’s own research has showed that filtering lowers speeds by 30% or more even under ideal testing conditions. The same data raises serious questions about the accuracy of filters, with even the best performers over-blocking hundreds of thousands of innocuous web sites.

There is still no information on what the government will consider “inappropriate” material. Censorware has in the past blocked people from accessing sites on botany, feminism, youth suicide prevention, rape and child molestation survivor support, family planning, prison rape activism, AIDS information, disability rights, gay rights, religion (including a Jewish youth site and the Vatican), political dissent, euthanasia, drug harm minimisation, human rights, major mainstream media sites such as TIME magazine, politics (including the British Conservative Party site).

If the censorship is based on a manually maintained blacklist, as seems likely, it will be a hopeless non-starter in terms of effectiveness. Sites move daily, there are millions of them, and the false positive and false negative rates will be so high as to make the entire exercise a hopeless joke – an expensive hopeless joke that will slow internet speeds for all Australians, and prevent non-technically-knowledgeable grown-ups from accessing to valid information.

The government’s own tests in a carefully controlled and tiny pilot environment showed the tested filters to be ineffective, to have serious impacts on network performance, to have major problems with overblocking, or all three. The best possible filter, as tested in this controlled laboratory environment, would be likely to block at least 10 000 legitimate websites within Australia alone. Most of the filters slowed internet speeds by 22-87%. The government tried to spin this trial as having positive and encouraging results, something the mainstream media lapped up uncritically.

Something the government is trying desperately to ignore is that there is simply no way to block all illegal material, let alone all “inappropriate” material. Even if they do block all of Youtube, Facebook, and Myspace, their web filters cannot block Usenet, instant messaging, IRC, peer-to-peer, or any of the other multitudes of protocols and methods that people use to access digital information. In addition, web filters are useless in the face of anyone with a modicum of easily-gained knowledge; they are trivially circumventable using proxy servers and software such as tor.

I have written to a number of non-major-party Senators to ask for their take on mandatory across-the-board censorship. Bob Brown’s office has responded to say that they’re against it. I will update when there is more information available.

Further information on what action you can take is available at the No Clean Feed site:

By letting policymakers know just what we think of the “clean feed” Internet filter, we can bring about a policy change. You can help by contacting your representatives and spreading the word about this campaign. Here are some quick actions you can take to make a difference.

* Write to Senator Conroy
* Write to your local member (more info)
* Call Conroy
* Contact your ISP
* Sign a petition
* Join or Donate to the EFA
* Link to this page


References and Further Reading:

Hoyden About Town: The Great Firewall of Australia., 31 Dec 2007

Hoyden About Town: “Civil liberties advocates = paedophiles”: Internet culture wars from the ALP. 1 Jan 2008

Hoyden About Town: You – You – You – Non-cookie-cutter feminist, you! 3 Jan 2008

Hoyden About Town: Censoring the Internet: Conroy plays King Canute. 4 Jan 2008

EFA analysis of the proposal, 4 Mar 2008

ACMA pilot test results: Closed Environment Testing of ISP-level Internet Content Filtering, June 2008

Minister’s Media Release, 28 July 2008

Hoyden About Town: No surprises: internet filtering test results show products block legitimate content. 31 July 2008

Computerworld: No opt-out of filtered Internet. 13 Oct 2008

Ars Technica: ‘Net filters “required” for all Australians, no opt-out. 16 Oct 2008

Gizmodo: Australia To Build Great Firewall Down Under. 16 Oct 2008

Crikey: And the Wankley Award goes to … Conroy’s net filtering scheme. 17 Oct 2008

EFA clean-feed site

Categories: culture wars, technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. I have written to my local member (unfortunately he’s former speaker David Hawker and generally useless) and Stephen Conroy, because this is going to have even greater impact on rural areas where our internet speeds are already disgracefully low. I work in healthcare, so I can see that I’m going to have problems looking up information for patients on, say, breast cancer. Not to mention that I need to be constantly connected to Medicare Australia to do my job, and the fastest broadband in my area is already too slow! Isn’t it nice to think that the government is willing to put business and healthcare back to the pre-internet age so that the few porn sites too stupid to avoid the filter get blocked?

  2. This is really scary. 😦 I’ll write to my local member too (Maxine McKew).

  3. Oh, this is SHITE.
    hexys last blog post..Finally! A comprehensive anti-gay agenda!

  4. It appalls me too, has done since was first floating. Was hoping they’d quietly ditch/modify it after election, still hoping.
    I’m interested in what the “recent comments by experts” are though re the “secret blacklist”? The only reference to this that I can find are comments by an Internode re on Whirlpool (linked from here: )
    There is a more recent post which links to this article which has “experts say” but still only refers to this one guy and the language from the dept spokesman is the same as before. The exact nature of “mandatory” is unclear.
    Anyway, I condemn the whole idea still and will indeed be letter writing. But the Dept/Minister should come clean on exactly what’s proposed because without such info rumours can run wild.

  5. Amanda: my fear is that the Minister hasn’t come clean on exactly what is proposed because he doesn’t understand it.

  6. Oh, for fuck’s sake.
    I was hoping this had gone away because I hadn’t heard much about it since I left. I figured it had been denounced as pure concentrated stupid or something.
    I am so sorry.
    Annas last blog post..Australian Government Thinks Internet Censorship is Great!

  7. Well Anna, no more comments like THAT!(Though I too was hoping it would disappear).
    You’ll now have to express your indignation by way of phrases like: For heaven’s sakes, or for goodness sakes, or OH MY STARS, and My Giddy Aunt.
    Sounds like we’re all about to get our mouths washed out with soap good and proper.That’ll teach us to swear like ladies of ill repute, and you know…disagree with stuff!
    I’ll start taking suggestions on renaming my blog if anyone has any.
    fuckpolitenesss last blog post..Devine bullshit flows like a river

  8. Maybe you could call it “fiddledeedee” or somethin’, fuckpoliteness. Or “For Shame!”

  9. I don’t have much to add except [gape]. I wish people would start to actually negotiate with the reality of the internet, instead of trying to tame it back into existing forms of media…
    WildlyParentheticals last blog post..Champagne Days…

  10. Er, what?
    I mean, I’m not in Australia myself, but now I find myself worried that my social networks with Australians will be diced up. 😦
    I hope this does not come to pass.

  11. Said this elsewhere:
    As an American, I’m used to having people say “How the fuck do they get away with DOING that to you all?”
    I’m not really very happy to get the chance to say it myself.

  12. The problem with this whole mess is that the Australian government is apparently trying to treat the internet (a global, uncentralised, interdependent network of hundreds of sites and services) as though it were the same as radio or television, or even newspapers. In other words, they want to set it up as a tightly controlled oligarchy (just like the radio, the television, and the newspapers) where the people are given what we’re told is most popular with everyone else (whether we actually like it or not).
    They’re attempting to sell it to us as a hand-wringing “won’t someone please think of the children?” situation. The more appropriate picture would be one of the censors sitting there telling us what’s appropriate for us to see, hear and read. (If anyone has a picture of the current board of censors, it might be worth putting up with a note saying “these people get to decide which films and television programs you can watch, which games you can play, which books you can read, which radio programs you can listen to, and now, which websites you can visit”).
    The thing which disturbs me most about this whole scheme is that they’re not telling us what they consider to be “too dangerous” for Australians to see. I want to know what I’m being “protected” from. Call me weird, but I thought that was one of the important things about being a grown-up – that I got to make my own decisions about these things.
    Meg Thorntons last blog post..More blithering about Crisis Core

  13. I had a phone conversation with a ministerial advisor on Friday.
    Scary in 2 ways.
    He had no idea about the technology with great comments about unencrypting emails as they’re being sent.
    More worrying were the types of sites he was speaking that will be blocked – essentially anything MA+.
    But that also included sites with different discussion areas on them – so a politics board that may have a revisionist section will get banned.
    His final statement “The Australian people voted for this. We have a mandate.”
    I’m looking at preparing an information kit for people and letter templates to help with writing to their minister.
    If you would like further information contact me here:
    We need to be serious and coordinated about it.
    This site
    may be a good rallying point.
    BTW – I have no idea who runs the site and I’m not affiliated with it.

  14. Cheers, James. Do you have the name of the person you spoke with at the Minister’s office, by any chance?
    Nocleanfeed is run by the EFA, as it says on their About page – their action plan and two links to the site are in this post.

  15. Sorry to be late to this thread, and thanks for the shout out to EFA (I am a board member of EFA). We are taking this very seriously indeed, ramping up for what is probably going to be our biggest campaign since the 90s.
    Lauredhel – from previous conversations with Conroy, I fear you may be right that much of his confusing back and forth on the details actually originates in ignorance of the issue.

  16. Let us know if we can do anything else to help, dave. Sad to hear that Conroy may not be up to speed.

  17. So children let me tell you the story about how we your parents lost your civil liberties, your right to express yourself. I could be sent to gaol for telling you this but it’s important that you know the truth. Back in 2008 a politician by the name of Stephen Conroy introduced an internet filter system under the claim that he was trying to protect the Children. Being the loving parents we thought we were we supported his moves, we thought “hay this will be good for our kids”, but we were sadly mistaken.
    Over the years more & more content disappeared from the internet, & then people started to disappear. Before long EFA was on the nations terrorist organisation list, and all internet content had to be checked by the Department of Truth & Punishment before publication. But we were happy you were all safe at home snug in your bed.
    Oh yes your ‘uncle Bob’ is coming over tomorrow to look after you while we are out… Why are you shaking my dear?


  1. Becrux » No Clean Feed - Home
  2. Net censorship roundup: Fielding and Xenophon want filters to include legal material at Hoyden About Town
  3. Fight Mandatory Internet Censorship in Australia, Sign the Petition | Opinion, Video | Aussie Geek Podcast
  4. Wild claims Hysteria Enthusiastic commentary on internet censorship: Ludlam in Senate Estimates
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