The Spoonman on MMM last night hosted a discussion of Conroy & Rudd’s internet censorship plans. You can download the podcast here.
Here’s a transcript of the first part of the show, with EFA Chair Dale Clapperton. (errors are mine, bold are where words were spoken with particular emphasis or to pick out dot points). Stay tuned for more.
Spoonman: Tonight, dear listener, we go to war. It’s ironic that just two days ago we paused to remember those who died fighting wars to protect our freedoms and our democracy, our rights to choose. But today the threat to those values and rights is not from any external force – no foreign country – but from our own Federal Government. In this case the battlefield is the internet, the trenches are our ISPs, and our only available weapon is your home computer. I’ll be urging you to take up the fight during tonight’s show.
Now as you may or may not be aware, the Rudd government set aside 128.5 million dollars to filter or block internet content that is, under Australian law, illegal. The Government claims the plan’s designed to prevent Australians from accessing child pornography. But in reality, once the issues have all played out, both technically and politically, it’s entirely possible that the bans would affect anything the Government deemed inappropriate, and we, the internet users of Australia, wouldn’t have a clue what we’re not able to access. It is possible that the blacklist that the Government’s going to draw up would apply to porn, websites advocating changes to voluntary euthanasia or indeed drug laws, maybe online gaming sites. Bloggers and independent journo’s sites could also be blocked, just to mention a few. And for those of you who get around the lack of an R18 classification for videogames by downloading them from the net, you’re gonna find those sites on the Government blacklist as well.
Now the blacklist of websites will be held by the Australian Communication and Media Authority, otherwise known as ACMA. It’s rumoured to contain around 10 000 websites. The list will be supplied to the 400-odd internet service providers; they’ll be forced to prevent you from accessing the sites on that list. The Cybersafety Plan, as the Government calls it, is in reality nothing more than a censorship of the internet.
Despite noises from the now Federal Communications Minister Senator Stephen Controy, during the last election campaign, there will be no capacity to opt out of the scheme. Instead there’s going to be two levels of censorship. The first is the blanket ban of sites the Government determines to be inappropriate. The second level will allow individual users to block access to ordinary porn sites, for example, to stop kids looking at them. Critics of the plan are making the following points:
* The Government simply has not made a case for the need for such a censorship of the internet.
* We already have the capacity to download free Net Nanny-type software at the user end to prevent children from accessing pornography. It cost 84 million dollars of your money to develop, was hacked in thirty minutes by a sixteen-year-old, and the takeup rate so far has been pathetically low. Most of the people who did decide to download it no longer use it.
* IT experts and the Government’s own figures show that internet speed, should this plan get up, will be reduce by at least two percent at best, and up to 80% at worst. Remember, Kevin Rudd’s Labor Government is spending another ten billion dollars of your money to develop a high speed broadband network, but seems intent on sabotaging it before it’s even established.
Those same experts also point to a number of flaws in the plan. For example:
* Peer to peer protocols, which account for about sixty percent of internet traffic, can’t be blocked under the Government’s plan.
* Other encryption protocols are already available which can render users invisible to any authorities including the Australian Federal Police. No doubt the disgusting child porn producers will be using these protocols already.
* Critics also claim that this censorship will put Australia in the same league as China, Iran, and Saudia Arabia.
So tonight, I’m going to dedicate a good slab of the show to finding out exactly what’s going on, and why we need to take a stand and fight this attack on our so far uncensored internet. In the interest of fairness, I made a number of approaches to the Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to come on the show tonight and explain his position. Late this afternoon I received a reply from his media advisor: “The Senator is not available to talk.” Not surprising, given how low-key the Government wants to keep this issue. But his reply did contain a background briefing paper, which is more damning than enlightening. So tonight, I’m going to speak to those spearheading the campaign to stop this stupidity, and then I’ll open up for a reaction from you, the internet users of Australia. Because tonight, gang, we are going to war.
The not-for-profit organisation spearheading the anti-censorship campaign is Electronic Frontiers Australia. Their web address, and I urge you to look at it, is efa.org.au. As I say, I urge you to check the website, make your comments, even make a donation, so they can take the fight up to Canberra on this one.
I have the Chair of the Electronic Frontiers Australia on the line now. Dale Clapperton, welcome to Triple M.
Dale Clapperton: G’day.
SM: Now the Government’s couched this internet censorship plan in very emotive terms, haven’t they, to prevent the distribution of child pornography online. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?
DC: It’s much more than that. Playing the child pornography card is something that the Government always trots out when this is on the agenda. It’s a fairly low and fairly transparent attempt to shut down debate on it. Essentially, they like to label anybody who’s against this as a child pornographer or paedophile. It’s pretty low, and it really is a demonstration of how weak their arguments are.
SM: There have been allegations published in the media recently suggesting the Government’s gone to the extent of trying to gag critics, alleging that anyone who disagrees somehow supports child pornography – which is just outrageous, isn’t it?
DC: It is. The Government, via one of the Minister’s media advisors, actually tried to exert political pressure on the employer of a bloke called Mark Newton, who’s been speaking out against this scheme. He’s a fairly technical person with Internode, a major Australian ISP. So he’s probably one of the people in Australia who’s best placed to be able to know that as a strictly technical matter, what the Government are proposing to do is just farcical.
SM: He has written a letter to his local Member of Parliament. Are you aware of whether he’s got a reply to that or not?
DC: I couldn’t tell you, off the top of my head, but so far what seems to be happening is that everybody who’s writing to their local members about this, or at least where those members are part of the Labor Party, they’re just getting a strictly form letter response. It’s completely canned, and it really doesn’t address any specific issues that the people have raised with the Members.
SM: So when you say “form letters”, it’s – “thank you for your reply, we’ll have a look at it and get back to you in due course” kind of thing?
DC: Well, it’s “thankyou for your reply, and here is two pages of spin and propaganda on how we’re saving the children and making the internet safe for everybody”.
SM: Mm-hmm, which is basically what I got by way of a background briefing paper from the Minister’s office today. Now we were originally told during the election campaign last year that we would have the ability to opt out of this filtering plan. That’s not the case now, is it?
DC: It’s very definitely not the case. So either they were lying to us then, or they’ve backflipped in between then and now. There is, as you said in your introduction, going to be a level to blacklisting to this system that adults will not be able to opt out of, and as much as the Minister likes to defend this scheme by saying that it’s either all child pornography or it’s all what he likes to call “illegal content”, that’s quite simply not the case. If you look at the Government’s own figures, for example, for the last annual report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, nearly half of the items that they’ve put on the blacklist in that year weren’t child pornography. They were just everyday run-of-the-mill adult material.
SM: And there are better ways to block access to inappropriate sites, and they’re already available, and that’s the type of Net Nanny software you download onto your home PC.
DC: Absolutely. It’s a useful tool for parents who want this type of thing to help them control what their children can see or do online. It’s not a perfect solution; supervision is obviously going to be part of the solution, as is education. But it’s available for people who want it, and we really don’t see a case for shoving it down the throats of everybody else.
SM: Is there any way we can verify exactly what websites are contained on this blacklist?
DC: No. The blacklist itself is super-secret. Back in 2001, shortly after the Commonwealth Government started maintaining this blacklist, although not forcing anybody to actually block access to what’s on it, EFA made a Freedom of Information request to the Government to try and find out the type of sites which were going on the blacklist. The Government denied the FOI request. We had to appeal it to the Minister of Appeals tribunal, where we ultimately lost. And along the way, the Government actually changed the FOI Act to make these types of documents specifically exempt. So it is, in reality, a secret blacklist.
Even when the Government bans or refuses classifications to films or computer games, that is actually on a publicly searchable database: you can get at it on the internet. So then you can see what it is you’re not allowed to see. Once this scheme goes into place, there’s just going to be a secret blacklist of websites you’re not allowed to see, and you don’t know what they are, and you don’t know why, and there’s no appeal.
SM: What sort of other sites, from your investigation into this issue, might be under threat from the censor?
DC: Well, on the blacklist as it currently stands, we believe that there’s a large number of X-rated websites. So that’s just ordinary, run-of-the-mill adult porn, the type of stuff that in some States and Territories in Australia you can walk into a shop and buy; and in other places, you can get via mail order from Canberra for example. So just regular, ordinary, run-of-the-mill porn. There is a decent amount of that on the blacklist. There’s also a smaller amount of R-rated content; that is, content which has been classified as inappropriate for children, because of sex or nudity.
SM: I guess there’s also the capacity for the Government, given the content of the list will be secret – for example, they could blacklist websites that feature things like changes to voluntary euthanasia to laws, changes or proposals to change illicit drug laws, those kinds of things – essentially anything the Government doesn’t want to have to deal with in an online capacity, that contradicts their line, could go on the blacklist, and we, the population, have no idea that that’s happened, or indeed what they are?
DC: There’s a technical capacity to do that, and really what we’ve seen to far is that a lot of the special interest groups in this debate are starting to come out of the woodwork. Labor needs the support of the five Greens Senators, plus Senator Fielding from Family First, and the Independent from South Australia, Senator Nick Xenophon, to get any legislation through the Senate, if the Coalition votes against it.
SM: I wanted to do the politics in a little while, Dale, after we’ve walked through some of the technical issues. Let me just walk through the process here. So the blacklist, once it’s created, and it could contain anything up to as I say ten thousand odd websites. That will have to be given to the 400-odd ISPs around the country, won’t it?
DC: Yes, it will. And it’s without a doubt going to leak, so to the extent that the blacklist does have child pornography sites on it – the blacklist is inevitable going to leak, they will have to distribute it to accomplish what they’re setting out to do. And then the Australian Government is essential going to be distributing a list of sites that contain child pornography.
SM: And as we’ve already seen, when there are leaks of sensitive Government documents, the person doing the leaking is often the subject of a witch-hunt, and the person receiving the leaked documents, by way of a journalist, can find themselves in front of a court.
DC: That is usually the case, but what invariably also happens in those cases is that the leaked material itself doesn’t actually get suppressed. It’ll end up on Wikileaks, or any number of the other websites outside Australia, outside the control of Australian laws. And once it’s leaked, there will be no getting rid of it.
SM: How practical will it be, from the Government’s point of view or indeed ACMA’s point of view, the Communications and Media Authority? Because they’re going to have to constantly update this list, won’t they, because those who find themselves on the banned list for whatever reason will simply change URL and away you go.
DC: Well, that is correct, of course, to the extent that they know they’ve ended up on the blacklist, because the Government doesn’t tell anybody about what’s on the blacklist…
SM: But I’m assuming the list will be leaked and publicly available daily …
DC: Once it’s leaked, of course people who want to get around it will simply change their domain name; so the Government will be having to try and hit a moving target in that respect.
SM: Now, is there any suggestion here of transparency? Do we know what the process will be in order to determine what websites will be on that blacklist and why?
DC: We know what’s currently on the blacklist. We don’t know what’s going to be on the blacklist once Labor implement this scheme. Because they’re sending all kinds of equivocal and mixed messages. In the Senate earlier this week, the Senator was talking about “unwanted” content as opposed to “illegal” content. So we don’t know what the blacklist is going to look like in future. But as far as the process: currently, content has to be submitted to what used to be the Office of Film and Literature Classification, and is now the Classification Board. They pretend that that piece of content is actually a film, such as you might see in a cinema, and they classify it according to the same rules. And if it’s classified either as “Refused Classification”, that is banned, or classified X, or classified R and it’s not protected by a Government-approved access control scheme, it will go on the blacklist.
SM: How easy will it be for users who are arguable far more net-savvy than me to get around the system? What sort of protocols are available to become effectively invisible as an internet user in Australia?
DC: It will be pretty trivial to accomplish that. What we’ve seen in recent years, where the number of countries with frankly fairly oppressive internet regulation schemes go – and I’m talking about countries such as China, Burma, and so forth here – countries which Australia will probably be joining if this goes ahead: people have developed tools that people in those countries can use to get around the schemes. And they work quite well. The same type of tools will be used in Australia. But even if you ignore those kinds of specialist tools, people will still be able to get “inappropriate” material via peer-to-peer services, or via email, or via anything encrypted. Which of course the internet filters won’t be able to filter – the best that they can do is attempt to block it entirely – which would break things such as online banking.
SM: Now, I’m quoting here directly from the media briefing paper that was sent to me from Senator Conroy’s office this afternoon. This is in response to a Q&A.
The question is “Has the plan been achieved in any other liberal democracies?”
The answer is “ISP filtering of this sort of material has already been implemented in countries such as the UK, Sweden, Norway, and Canada (amongst others).”
That is a lie, isn’t it?
DC: It is a lie. In those countries, only some ISPs do blacklisting. They don’t actually filter content, they only apply a blacklist. It’s done voluntarily, by not all of the ISPs, and that blacklist is only supposed to target child pornography. What the Government are proposing will be mandatory for all ISPs, and it is going to target a hell of a lot more than just child porn.
SM: OK. Some of the technical downsides of the plan as I understand them:
* Speeds will be affected
* Some innocent sites will be blocked
* Some not-so-innocent sites are going to be missed.
Is that a reasonable assessment?
DC: It’s a very reasonable assessment, and in fact it’s borne out by the results of the Government’s very own trials that they carried out earlier in the year. They tested six different filtering products. We’re not permitted to know exactly which six products they tested. But from the results that they released, only one of those products had anything approaching an acceptable speed impact, and that caused a two percent slowdown. The others were all into the double digits, and they averaged about 30 or 40% speed reduction from the maximum capacity of the network. And on top of that, they all let through several percent of material that they ought to have blocked access to, and they all blocked an even higher percentage of material that was legitimate, and they shouldn’t have blocked.
It’s looked as though, on the basis of those numbers and assuming that they carry over into the real world, that about one in twenty websites could be inadvertently blocked under the type of filtering system they’re proposing.
SM: Let’s have a look at politics, if I can.
SM: I notice the Coalition’s Bruce Billson, who’s the Shadow Communications spokesperson, has been virtually absent from this debate. How do you think the Liberals are going to vote on this one – the Coalition?
DC: Well, the public policy of the Coalition on this issue is that they don’t think it can be accomplished. Almost in their exact words, they’re saying that they remain to be convinced that it’s technologically feasible; and even if it’s feasible, they’re not entirely sure that it’s a good idea. They’re really waiting to see what the results of the live trial the Commonwealth is trying to enlist ISPs into carrying out in the next couple of months are.
SM: I’ll be talking to a senior executive from one ISP who has jumped on board a little later in the show. Now if – obviously, if the Coalition decide to vote with this, in the Senate particularly, its’ a fait accompli, isn’t it?
DC: It is. There’s nothing that could be done to stop it in that case. It would sail through both Houses of Parliament, and the Australian citizens, really their only recourse would be at the next election, when I’m quite sure they would make their feelings heard in a clear and unambiguous fashion.
SM: Judging from some of the postings on your website I can well understand that. Now, if the government though has to start horse-trading in the Senate in order to get this legislation through. Assuming the Coalition votes against it, then Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding – Xenophon the anti-gambling Senator who is from South Australia, and Steve Fielding from Family First – if they have to start horse-trading with these two, we could find all porn and all online gaming sites on that banned list, could we not?
DC: It’s entirely possible. Those two Senators have shown that they are not afraid to shoot down Labor’s legislation. Senator Fielding killed Fuelwatch just yesterday by voting against it in the Senate, so assuming Labor need the support of those two Senators to get it through the Senate, and they want their own little additions to the scheme, it’s entirely possible that material that those Senators want blocked… and remembering of course that Senator Fielding in particular is from Family First, a fairly right-wing conservative Christian party – it’s entirely possible that all porn could end up on the blacklist.
SM: He’s already stated publicly that he would like to see hardcore porn on that banned list, so he’s already making those kind of noises and the horse-trading hasn’t even started.
Now while I’ve got you Dale Clapperton, the Chair of EFA, you’re also campaigning, like I have for years on this show, to get an R18 rating for videogames. What effect is the lack of an R18 category having?
DC: Well, the lack of an R classification for computer games means that anything that’s stronger than MA15+ is automatically banned, that is, it’s refused classification. When you put that in combination with this blacklisting scheme, what it’s going to mean is that any computer game that’s stronger than MA15+, and I’m thinking about computer games such as the overseas versions of Grand Theft Auto for example, will probably end up on the blacklist as soon as somebody complains about them, because they are technically banned in Australia.
SM: Now, obviously young people who want access to those games have been able to download them from the net, so the sites they download them from end up on the blacklist, and therefore you won’t be able to get access to them. OK.
Now, the Government’s asked for expressions of interest from ISPs to trial the filtering over the next few weeks, as you indicated. Telstra Bigpond and Optus have not yet committed to it. Iinet has, but only to prove to the government that it’s unworkable at the technical level. Have you got any reaction to that? Should the ISPs at this point in time take a stand and say, “We’re just simply not going to play with this”?
DC: We don’t really have a position on whether the ISPs should do that or not. If all the ISPs refused to play along with the Government’s agenda on this, there’s a very real risk that they would just go ahead and do it anyhow. If at least some ISPs do participate, and the numbers do in fact show that it’s not workable, then that is probably hard evidence that might cause the Coalition to oppose it. So it’s not an entirely bad thing that ISPs are doing this; however, we would not want to see them forcing the filtering onto customers who haven’t volunteered for it.
SM: I should point out that Iinet is only getting involved to do just that – to make the case to the Government, and presumably to the Opposition, that this is a really stupid idea.
Now, just in conclusion, Dale, what’s the best way for ordinary Australian internet users to fight this stupidity, and I guess a hideous waste of taxpayer money as well?
DC: Well, it is, and the best way that they can do it is simply by telling their elected representatives how pissed off they are about this. Lots of people have been doing that already; we need lots more. People need to find out who their Federal Member of Parliament is, and who their Federal Senators are for their State; they need to get onto them, send them letters, send them emails, call their offices, try and get appointments to tell them face to face if you can. Really, if Labor can be convinced that the vast majority of Australians don’t want this, and I’m quite sure that that’s the case, it might cause them to drop it.
SM: Do you think that the Government is in any sort of mood to listen to the desires of the Australian people, or are they determined to push ahead with this.
DC: They are determined to push ahead with it. It is something that they have promised to do before the election, although as we’ve already discussed they were promising something quite different.
SM: Indeed, and I reported at the time that that’s what they were considering, and didn’t worry too much about it on the basis that there would be an opt-out clause for the whole thing for the average internet user in Australia.
DC: Which of course is no longer the case, but notwithstanding that what they’re proposing now bears no resemblance to what they were saying they would do if they got into power back then, they are saying that they have a mandate to do this and they’re going to go ahead and do it. I am, however, hopeful that notwithstanding their determination to do it, that they will have an eye on the next election, and if this does cause half of the damage that’s being suggested it could by EFA and others, that they will realise that if this blows up in their face it will be something that will come back to haunt them at the next Federal election. And it could quite conceivably cost them power.
SM: Is there any capacity for court challenges, Dale?
DC: It’s not impossible. It’s something that we’ve been looking into. Doing so would be hampered by the fact that Australian doesn’t have a Bill of Rights. We don’t really have any kind of guarantee of free speech except for a pretty limited implied right in the Constitution.
SM: That’s correct, yup.
DC: And that only really applies to speech on political and government matters. If the scheme, once it was set up, was in fact blocking access to political and government related material, it’s quite conceivable that a court challenge could succeed. I’m aware of at least one filtering programme or service which is sold by an overseas company that, as an example, blocks access to the website of the registered Australian political party One Nation, because it claims it’s “hate speech”.
SM: Interesting. Dale Clapperton, I very much appreciate your time. He is the EFA Chairman. Thank you sir.
DC: Happy to help.
SM: OK. Now I urge you to log on to the website: efa.org.au. They’re happy to take donations. It’s a not for profit organisation set up specifically to represent the interests of the average internet user in Australia, under the guise of freedom of speech and all those other freedoms that so many died for so many years ago for the rest of us.