Of Governments and Blogs (slight return)

I’ve already submitted a couple of lengthy comments (of which only the first half got published) to the Government’s technology blog on the recent post about ISP-level filtering (at last). I thought, however, I would use this opportunity to look in greater depth at the arguments (a term which I use very loosely) made by Sen Conroy. (It’s wonderful to see that the good senator has posted this article late in the afternoon three days before Christmas and is closing comments off at 3pm AEDT tomorrow. Wouldn’t want anyone to be able to use it now, would we?)

This is an attack on freedom of speech

In spite of the Senator’s reassurance, this is fundamentally an attack on free speech. Our laws are defined in such a way that whatever is not prohibited by law remains legal. (We legislate against certain behaviours, rather than regulate in favour of others.) Final responsibility for any action ultimately falls to the individual. By introducing an ISP-level filter, Sen Conroy has removed that freedom. In spite of your protests, Senator, you are censoring free speech by introducing this filter.

Why aren’t PC-level filters sufficient?

Well, in fact, they are. Sen Conroy’s statement that ‘many parents do not have the technical skills or (sic.) knowledge to install and manage PC-level filters’ is pure, unadulterated bullshit. (For those wondering about the sic., if you have a negative statement, you should use ‘nor’ rather than ‘or’.)

ISP-level filtering could provide important protection for those families with limited technical expertise.

I call bullshit. Come on, Senator, you don’t expect us to buy into this do you? ‘Could provide’? You can’t even state it unabiguously. Most PC-level filters consist of a process of download → double-click icon → follow the prompts. Given that parents with young children are now more likely to have themselves been raised in an era of at least some computer/internet access, to suggest that these parents do not have the skills to install a piece of software is just plain wrong. To legislate on the basis that someone, somewhere might not have this expertise nor be able to learn it, is just plain stupid. (See, Senator, that’s the correct use of ‘nor’ with a negative statement.)

The fact that only ~2% of households with dependent children chose to use the filters suggests to me that:

  1. people don’t know about it; or
  2. people don’t care about it.

If we are to believe Sen Conroy that the previous government spent $84.8 million on the program and $15.5 million in advertising, my money’s on (2). (Although I have to admit, I don’t recall seeing any of this advertising, so (1) might have a few more points than I credit it.)

[I]n conjunction with the Government’s numerous other initiatives in this area, we believe it [ISP-level filtering] can make an important contribution to protecting children online.

Senator, once again, I, like so many others, call upon you to explain just how the ISP-level filter will be at all beneficial. All we get is that it will be an ‘important contribution’ alongside all your other initiatives. Furthermore, we’re still waiting for a definition of this ‘important contribution’. That’s all we get. Words. Meaningless words.

That word you keep using; I do not think it means what you think it means

— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

How will the blacklist be maintained?

ACMA’s decisions on content are based on the advice of ACMA staff who have been members of the Classification Board and/or undergo regular training by the Classification Board to help ensure consistency of decisions.

Like the consistency shown by the OFLC? Grand Theft Auto IV was modified prior to submission for classification for release on the PS3 and XBox360 since it had already been established that an unaltered version would be refused classification; however, an uncut version was submitted for classification for the PC release. Both were given identical ratings. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was initially refused classification by the OFLC, then given an MA15+ rating after WB Interactive appealed the decision. No modification has been made to the game. And yet, Silent Hill: Homecoming remains ‘refused classification’. And Fallout 3? Well, all they had to do was change references to ‘morphine’ to ‘med-x’ and it got through. The point is that no system is infallible; the OFLC generally does a pretty good job (although the lack of an R18+ classification for games — thanks, Atkinson — severely hampers their efforts) but it still makes judgments which may be out of touch with the majority of Australians, sometimes (but not always) due to pressure by the Government or conservative lobbyist groups.

Or how about the censorship of Wikipedia in Britain as a result of incorrectly labelling a page as ‘child pornography’? (The true irony is that the album is available in stores in Britain with exactly the cover art which was deemed ‘inappropriate’.) Given that the government has proposed using the the IWF’s list as an addendum to ACMA’s, can we expect such stupidity here? And guess what? The model (who was about 12 at the time) who posed for that picture says she has no regrets about doing it.

Which really comes down to how we define ‘child pornography’. The Virgin Killer album cover is not intended primarily for sexual gratification, so by definition is not pornography, in the same manner that Bill Henson’s photography is not pornography. (If some people get sexual gratification from it, that is an entirely different matter.) What is truly abhorrent about child pornography is the abuse of the duty of care each and every one of us has towards minors. It is not the sex per se, but the violation of trust and of the duty of care resulting from the lack of consent on the child’s part (consent which cannot be given for the simple fact that the child cannot be deemed competent to make such a judgment).

The short of it is, in spite of the best intentions of any body such as the OFLC or ACMA, no two people will necessarily agree on what is or is not appropriate. At some point we must hand that responsibility to the individual, and the introduction of an ISP-level filter prohibits this freedom. (As before, it remains an attack on free expression.)

Why won’t the Government publish what is included in the ACMA blacklist?

Here, at last, Sen Conroy actually makes a little bit of sense. Of course, his words are still a twisted mess of illogical rhetoric.

Publishing the title or internet address of child abuse material would constitute distribution of illegal material and is therefore protected from release. To do otherwise would allow a person to view and download the material in jurisdictions where ISP-level filtering was not implemented. Given that most of this material relates to child sexual abuse, the publication of this information is clearly not in the public interest.

Unfortunately, Sen Conroy is already talking as if we have this magical filter in place. Also, Sen Conroy, more importantly, it would allow people who had any capability at all and who circumvented the filter to access this material. It doesn’t matter if the filter is in place or not, publishing the list would allow people everywhere to gain access to these sites. In that capacity, I agree that the ACMA list should not be made public; however, the good Senator has not addressed how including and ISP-level filter would prevent access to these sites if the person already knows the url (and has the most basic understanding of web technology), and he has further been remiss in providing details on how one might appeal one’s inclusion on such a list.

On another note, the Government has not outlined how it plans to deliver the blacklist to ISPs. Given that (due to the very nature of their jobs) the people working at these companies tend to be tech-savvy, it opens up a whole new can of worms since anyone working at the ISP could potentially access the blacklist.

Furthermore, ISPs are generally quick to take down any child pornography hosted with them. It does them no favour leaving it up. The ACMA blacklist is therefore useful to contact ISPs regarding illicit content and requesting its removal; but given that the majority of child pornography is not distributed via http, the need to check against this list for every website (and every link on that website) is just fucking stupid.

How does ACMA determine what sites will be included on the blacklist?

I think my answer above covers my criticism of this already…

Hasn’t the Government already undertaken a trial of the technical issues surrounding internet filtering? Didn’t this trial find that filtering was not effective?

Yes it did. But this Government will whine about the way the old Government conducted it and it is therefore not a valid criticism. In spite of which, the current Government seems to be following exactly the same route…

Testing of the ACMA blacklist in isolation was not included in this trial—all testing included dynamic filtering of a wider range of content that resulted in worse test results (for reasons explained previously) than we would expect if the blacklist was tested alone.

Wow. Sen Conroy has admitted that the dynamic testing failed. And yet he still thinks that it is a good idea. And as for the blacklist? Senator, you still haven’t addressed any of the issues raised about its validity, its effects on speed and reliability nor its maintenance. If you insist on using this as your benchmark, please outline your procedures, stating any assumptions, and give us a usable metric. You have failed to do this on any occasion. Until such time as you can provide actual results, you have no right to claim a superior method.

Won’t internet filtering reduce internet speeds?

This trial found ‘network degradation’ of less than two per cent for one product, less than 30 per cent for three products and in excess of 75 per cent for two products.

What the good Senator fails to point out is that the product which had less than two per cent network degradation (why it is in quotation marks like it is not a real measure is beyond me) had the worst response. It had an unacceptably high miss rate, and an unacceptably high false-positive rate. The filters which met the Government’s desires were the products which slowed the network in excess of 75 per cent.

Sen Conroy, please don’t try to blindside us with meaningless statistics. You need to provide a full benchmarking suite of what tests were conducted and how each filter performed on a number of criteria before any of us will take you seriously. Quit it with the fucking rhetoric already.

Internet filtering won’t stop peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic—so why bother?

The Government understands that ISP-level filtering is not a ‘silver bullet’. We have always viewed ISP-level filtering as one part of a broader government initiative for protecting our children online.

Technology is improving all the time. Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.

Senator, this is the first time ever that filtering of p2p and BitTorrent has been mentioned. I’m not even sure you actually understand what these things mean. It’s like you just decided to tack on some extra words to make you sound more knowledgeable. No consent has been given from ISPs or users for this action, nor has any outline been provided as to how these filters would operate. Given the method in which BitTorrent traffic is disseminated, I think you would find it extremely difficult to match against any list of prohibited content. And to block it altogether is outright censorship. Many businesses use BT to distribute software and patches (Linux and Blizzard are two which spring to mind immediately). How do you plan to distinguish between these uses and your ‘child pornography’?

So what else is the Government doing to help protect children online?

This one I just had to quote in full.

The Government’s $125.8 million Cyber-Safety policy includes programs aimed at improving education, research and law enforcement as well as ISP-level filtering.

It includes initiatives to:

  • Expand the capacity of the Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations team to detect and investigate online child abuse, adding an additional 91 AFP members to online child protection by 2011.
  • Increase ACMA education activities delivered to parents, teachers, librarians and children—including 150 cyber-safety presentations from January to September in 2008 attended by over 14 900 people.
  • Broaden the terms of reference for the Cyber-Safety Consultative Working Group to include all aspects of cyber-safety, such as cyber-bullying and the exposure of children to illegal and inappropriate content .
  • Create a Youth Advisory Group to ensure programs remain relevant and on-target.

We understand that filtering alone will not protect our children online. However, we believe that it can play an important role as part of a comprehensive government effort to tackle this issue.

It is also increasingly becoming an international expectation that countries do something about stemming the tide of child sexual abuse material. To not act (sic.) would fall short of international standards.

Looking at the list, all these are admirable initiatives, which could have an important positive effect. I’m bemused, to say the least, as to how the Government plans to increase the number of AFP in the Child Protection Operations team when the Rudd Government has cut a significant chunk out of the AFP’s budget. Why not scrap the filter and funnel these additional resources into something that might actually work? (Although I must admit I’m always a little sceptical of anything with a title such as “Youth Advisory Group”. Frequently there appear to be little or no youth involvement. Much like anything with “Family” in the title generally has very little to do with families — just look at Patriarchy Family First.)

For the last time, Senator, please explain what ‘important role’ this filter will actually provide. You keep using these terms but have never quantified your argument. Rhetoric is not enough; we need metrics!

(Aside: the sic. here refers to the split infinitive.)

And in conclusion…

Sen Conroy announced today that the blog would be closing comments as of 3pm AEDT tomorrow. (As stated, this was to be a trial run.) Ultimately, Sen Conroy’s complete ignorance of how to run a blog only goes to show how out of touch he is with the online community. Despite what the ‘digital economy blog team’ has stated, it seems to have been little more than a vehicle for press releases. (All articles except the filter appear to be verbatim extractions from the discussion paper already published).

I don’t know if it’s just slow getting through or if I’ve been blacklisted myself (oh, the irony if it were true) but I shall close this post with the same words I left in my final comment there:



~ by MattR on December 23, 2008.

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