Up Front by Emma Hart


Young and Sort of Free

Australians. They’re just like us, only brasher, freer and stronger right? We're all nanny-state and worrying about feelings, they're all 'whadaaaaarya' and biting the heads off snakes. Except apparently Australians can't go on the internet without someone holding their hand.

Like a lot of people around here I was pretty happy with the result of the last Australian election. Yet amidst all the apologising and signing up for Kyoto, Kevin Rudd's shiny new government did something that slipped under my radar. Probably a lot of things, really, but this is what bothers me now: the Aussie Clean Feed. They’re intending to filter all content at an ISP level, to remove child pornography. And other pornography. And R-rated content. And violence. And ‘inappropriate content’.

Let’s be fair. The British started it. As of the beginning of this year, the British ‘voluntary’ clean feed has now been applied by all ISPs. Because the filtering isn’t mandatory there’s been no legislation, no vote and no debate. If British users try to access blacklisted pages, they will be shown a soothing 404 error, to avoid the distress of being informed that the content has been censored.

Even in Australia this isn’t really the Labor Party’s baby. This is policy that the Australia Institute and the Family First Party were pushing back in 2003. The Liberals were in on the act by 2005, though reading their speeches, you can understand the concern. Apparently, the internet works differently in Australia:

Even in our own homes, you go home, turn on your home computer and bingo-out come the pornographic sites. You are hit again and again.
~ Senator Guy Barnett, Lib, Tas

you have only got to press P on the Internet and all this stuff appears free of charge in front of you
~ Senator Paul Calvert, Lib, Tas

I can only hope I never work out how to ‘press P on the internet’ so I can avoid getting punched in the face by bingo-porn.

The Rudd government is getting the job done. There’s AU$75 million set aside in the Federal budget over the next two years for implementing the compulsory clean feed scheme. Some of this funding will come from the now-defunct NetAlert filter scheme, which provided filtering software free of charge to Australian households.

In July, the government ran a trial of various filtering systems in Tasmania. There’s an excellent round-up of the results here. In brief:
- while load testing was based on thirty users and only blocked 3930 sites, network degradation was as high as 75%. The more accurate the filter was, the worse the effect it had on performance. One filter caused a 22% degradation in speed when it wasn’t actually filtering.
- at best, sites were correctly blocked 92-95% of the time. At worst, more than one in ten got through.
- at best, sites were incorrectly blocked (blocked when they contained no objectionable content) 1% of the time. That doesn’t sound too bad, but imagine that’s your business, one of the one in a hundred sites blocked from the entire Australian market when you’ve done nothing wrong. At worst, over-blocking hit over 6%.
- the only way to filter content on instant messengers or peer to peer protocols was to block them completely.
- The filters do nothing to protect children from actual dangers such as cyber-bullying or stalking.

This has been touted as a success, and the project is powering on to its next step, a real-world pilot program.

Now, let’s assume that protecting children from child pornography is a pressing need. Let’s assume that it’s easy to define pornography and Kevin Rudd is inarguably correct when he calls this picture ‘disgusting’. Let’s assume that Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy has people’s best interests at heart and his opponents can justly be characterised thusly:

Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road. If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.

Worried about free speech? Concerned that nobody seems to know what’s on the blacklist, but that it will cover legal material? You’re obviously a pervert. They’re thinking about the perverts too, though. You may be able to opt out of filtering by contacting your ISP and asking to be put on the 'filthy uncensored internet' list. Though as the filtering software will still be running on your connection, it’ll be filthy uncensored slow internet.

This system will be applied to every public and private net connection in the country. It will be applied to every household, even though only a third of Australian households have children and only a third of those have filtering software installed – even though it’s free. Oddly the policy is being aggressively pushed despite it being very unpopular with internet users - 51.5% strongly oppose the plan, while only 2.9% strongly support it.

But even if you assume that pre-chewed baby-food internet for adults is an acceptable sacrifice for protecting children, the simple fact is that filtering doesn’t do that. All filters both over-block and under-block. They don’t protect children from chatting to people they shouldn’t, putting silly things on their MySpace pages, or being bullied by other kids. They don’t help children learn to make good decisions about using the net.

Yes, some parents want their children’s internet filtered. They were able to do that, using the previous government’s NetAlert free filter program, which is being discontinued and having its funding diverted to the CleanFeed. Obviously not enough parents were Thinking of the Children, so now it’s the Federal Government’s job.

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