Cleaning Up Australia

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The interwebs almost sizzled themselves out of action by force of pure indignation when Senator Stephen Conroy started making noises last October about a so-called clean feed to ensure "cyber-safety" for that most precious political constituency: the Australian family. Conroy’s filter pilot still hasn’t been launched but the alarm online hasn’t died down. This week, Blogwatch looks at what tech-heads around the world have to say about web filters — and particularly about the Australian proposal. Unless you can sleep-talk C++, you’ll need to slow down, buckle up, and disable all pop-ups.

It’s not just the combination of a general slowdown and censorship that has tech bloggers worried. White hat hacker Matt Strahan talks to BanThisURL about the ways in which a filter might open up new horizons for hackers to intercept personal data. There’s plenty of tech detail on the site but the doomsday scenario is succinctly expressed: "if someone finds a single security vulnerability it allows them to take over the box".

The Register, a UK-based IT blog, does nothing to shift the widely held belief that nerds will giggle furiously at any salacious content with its headline, "Is the internet going down down under?" Oh, stop. They’re worried, though, about the implications of Australia’s clean feed for the UK: "If it is implemented and works in however half-arsed a fashion, look forward to proposals to filter the UK internet in a couple of years time".

Tech sites in South Africa are watching proceedings with interest too, while boing boing bounces back a post entitled "Australia’s Great Firewall: just like China, Syria and other ‘free’ countries" (ouch) from ComputerWorld which nicely sums up the double discontent:

"The fact that it will likely reduce everyone’s internet performance is secondary; it will most likely incorrectly block 1 per cent of sites, and now what you are allowed to view online is determined and controlled by the state (although most likely quite inaccurately)."

China’s unenviable information regulation policies are also invoked by Crunchgear who describes the open-endedness of the policy as both "ominous" and "capricious".

Foobar at Geekzone dares to argue that the Oz clean feed might just be a single manoeuvre in a larger game:

"There is some talk that the Government in Australia
is just introducing this scheme as a way to pander to a single MP from
a right-wing, conservative party (who apparently combines technical
cluelessness with not liking the fact that some people may actually
have different lifestyle choices or opinions than he himself), whose
vote they need for day to day dealings in parliament. That would truly
be a deal with the devil, if you think about it: Taking away the
liberties of an entire nation just for your own, personal gains and for
clinging on to power."

You guessed it, it’s a Kiwi site.

But before we all melt with cultural cringe, let’s note that other many jurisdictions do have internet filtering regimes in place. A 2007 report from the Berkman Centre found that 25 of 41 governments surveyed filtered internet activity. Not just China but Iran, Saudi Arabia, Burma, Pakistan and Syria.

Conroy and his office have repeatedly pointed to web filters already in place in the UK, Sweden, Denmark and Finland as a counter to allegations that his clean feed will break the internet. As the folks at the Register point out, there is an important distinction of scale to be drawn between the Conroy model and what’s actually in place in the UK. That, and the fact that the European models are all "opt-in" web filters. What Conroy advocates is a mandatory "opt-out" model, something quite different.

There are two elements to Conroy’s proposed clean feed: the first, a
site register which will filter illegal content and hardcore
pornography; the second, an "opt-out" filter which will process
"unwanted content". Just where the parameters of wanted and unwanted
content lie is unclear, as is the definition of that which will be
blocked to all Australian users in a mandatory fashion. PZ Myers at Pharyngula warns: "Watch out, Australia, this is the first step towards allowing the government to control all of your information."

A registry of banned sites is administered by the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK; their filtering guidelines are followed by almost all British ISPs. When the IWF blacklisted a Wikipedia page which featured the cover of a German 70s heavy metal album depicting a naked teenager, the potential collateral damage of this kind of content blocking became apparent.

Read a sober assessment of the brouhaha here at Open Rights, and a lucid defence of the IWF here. Moves are apparently underway to implement a similar filter in Germany.

For those who seeking a fast, concentrated dose of the tech community’s attitude to internet filtering, Australian PC enthusiast forum Overclockers has established a comprehensive wiki, archiving news coverage day-by-day and collecting blog commentary on the clean feed. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Overclockers are not keen on internet filtering and advocate instead parental monitoring of family internet use:

"This does mean necessarily that the parents will have to actively watch them, for younger teens the chance that they may be caught would be enough of a deterrent from fear that they may get caught."

We’re not sure that this advice will synchronise with all families, but it is a nice break from the stance more frequently taken in the IT community: "It won’t work, you fools" (a cry delivered in the tones which lie between scornful and scathing).

(If you’re confused about the fuss over what the technical
impediments to implementing InternetWatch actually are, systems
engineer Geordie Guy answers all the questions you’ve been too scared
to ask at newmatilda.com.)

John Birmingham blogging for the Brisbane Times agrees that it’s the responsibility of parents to look after their kids online: "You wouldn’t set a small child loose in the city and expect the government to step in and do your child-minding for you." Like many others, he’s none too pleased about the civil infringement aspect of the proposal:

"There’s always been a harsh streak of Catholic punishment freakery in the ALP and you put that together with the Ruddbot’s own core programming, which trends strongly towards God-bothering, cold showers and the improving discipline of birch bark floggings for all, and you suddenly get the Telecommunications Minister Stephen ‘Chips’ Conroy wanting to get into the back of your hard drive with his tin snips to make sure nothing nasty is going on in there.

Harley Dennett, writing for the Sydney Star Observer, is
concerned that the laws will have an unfair impact on the GLBT
community, particularly if peer-to-peer networks are drawn into the
fray.

A study titled Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies has just been published by Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, reports NetChoice. And guess what? Net filtering might not be a silver bullet. We’re getting more and more sceptical that there are any silver bullets left anywhere:

"The findings show that social networking and content companies are already doing quite a lot to keep minors safe on their sites. They also show online threats from adults are not the only danger — that youth-on-youth and offline conduct are also critical aspects of child safety. Awareness, education, and parental involvement are crucial to ensuring the online safety of our children."

The loudest voices in favour of a clean feed come from child protection groups. Australian Bishop Peter Ingham, arguing that speed isn’t everything, called on the community to support the Government in its attempts to "keep pace with the rest of the world when it comes to cleaning up the net in a fair and reasonable way". We’re not sure what jurisdiction he’s talking about.

Oz blogger Stilgherrian is mad as hell about internet filtering and, in particular, the statement made by Bernadette McMenamin of Child Wise that opposition to internet filtering is tantamount to advocacy of child pornography:

"Gloves-off time. The purveyors of pervasive internet censorship — handful that they are — have burned their goodwill. It’s time to call them out on their lies and demand to know why they’re not advocating the real solutions to child sexual abuse."

At SomebodyThinkOfTheChildren, vociferous clean feed opponent Michael Meloni points out that time’s a-wasting: "How many children remain suffering at the hand of an abuser as the Government and Child Wise fight to introduce mandatory filtering?," he asks.

Another issue that pops up again and again in the comments threads about internet filtering is a National Broadband Network, a campaign issue for Rudd in 2007 that he seems to have, well, forgotten. Australian internet speeds are already lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Thanks to Kevin ’97, Australia’s stretch of the information superhighway could soon be safe for kids on tricycles.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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