Hey, Senator "cleanfeed" Conroy, listen up!
As trials continue ahead of the introduction of mandatory ISP filtering sometime early in 2009, it's becoming clearer that the entire scheme is an ill-thought-out attempt for left-wing Labor to suck up to right-wing politicians. Here's six reasons why the concept is stupid and hopefully doomed to failure.
We can't say we didn't know it was coming. Prior to last year's Federal election, Labor had made it clear that it would introduce some form of ISP-level content filtering, but in the excitement over the National Broadband Network, no-one paid much attention to this detail. And given that its Federal Liberal predecessors had come up with the equally stupid and rarely used mid-1990s Internet censorship laws and the monumentally unpopular and now discontinued free filters for families scheme, it seems unlikely we could ever have escaped some attempt to crack down on Net nasties. But that doesn't mean the "clean feed" campaign — which will require ISPs to provide a Net connection with an list of material deemed undesirable for children blocked, and will require adults to opt-in if they want largely unfettered access — is anything but stupid. Here's five reasons why.
1. It will slow everything down. As Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) pointed out recently in launching its No Clean Feed campaign, filtering slows down connections by at least 30% based on the government's own evidence in the form of ACMA's report into the effectiveness of filtering. Given the billions that are supposed to be invested in our new national high-speed broadband network real soon now, this seems like a contradictory stance to say the least (though we're sure whoever builds it will welcome any excuse for less than banner performance).
2. Offensive is in the eye of the beholder. Leaving aside already illegal material such as child pornography and snuff films, it's quite difficult to define what should be banned, even in a family context. Family First types would presumably like to see any adult material banned (even the R-rated stuff); religious devotees might object to Life Of Brian fan sites; South Australia's Attorney General apparently believes that gaming is the root of all evil; and people with brains might wonder why anyone needs access to information about Paris Hilton. Trying to maintain a workable list will be an expensive and ultimately futile exercise.
3. It presumes families care about this stuff. "The Australian Government is committed to ensuring all Australian families can utilise ISP filters that block prohibited content as identified by the Australian Communications and Media Authority," communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy said in June this year. "Families should also be able to access filters that can be customised to block more material if they choose."
The available evidence suggests that most families don't give a flying proverbial. Conroy himself shut down the previous government's National Filter Scheme after it emerged that even amongst households who bothered to acquire the free software, just 20% bothered to update it regularly. Clearly, parents have better things to do with their time than fuss around with filters.
4. It makes Australia look stupid on a global scale. It's easy to read news reports about Indonesia's plans to attempt a comprehensive pornography ban and laugh, but the Australian proposal isn't so different in scope. As EFA chair Colin Jacobs recently told the Sydney Morning Herald: "I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world."
5. The people supporting it don't like mounting rational arguments. Communications Day recently quoted Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, on why mandatory filtering was desirable. "The need to prevent access to illegal hard-core material and child pornography must be placed above the industry's desire for unfettered access," Wallace said. This kind of lazy rhetoric, implying that anyone who opposes wide-scale censorship is automatically in favour of child pornography, is intellectually vapid and entirely unhelpful.
Bonus point 6. It's the thin end of the wedge. As law lecturer Kimberlee Weatherall pointed out earlier this year, fully blocking access to pornographic content would mean filtering P2P streams as well — and if that could be done (a big if, admittedly), there's likely to be pressure from content creators to have P2P more fully regulated. That's a helpful way to spend everyone's tax dollars, isn't it? As EFA's Colin Jacobs commented recently: "It's starting to look like nothing less than a comprehensive program of real-time Internet censorship." But perhaps we shouldn't expect anything more from a PM who banned his own staff from using Facebook lest it ruin his public image.