Filtering Australian’s Internet is something all good politicians learned to avoid long ago after the fiasco that was Labor’s Clean Feed. It quickly turned from being what seemed like an easily defensible policy (Think of the children!) to the horrendous mess that it was, something that threatened the very core of what the Internet was built on. Thus any policy that dares to tread similar ground has, for the most part, been put down long before the legislation makes it to the floor of our parliament. However it seems that, in true Liberal fashion, our current government wants to put a filter in but is flatly denying that that’s what they’re doing.
Last year Brandis and Turnbull got in cahoots with each other to start devising some reforms to Australia’s copyright system, most likely in response to some of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that have been going on. These reforms largely ignored the actual problem and instead adopted the reactionary measures that other countries have adopted, all of which have proven ineffective in curbing copyright infringement. However one of the measures, the requirement for ISPs to block links to infringing content when contacted, had a strange bit of familiarity of it.
It sounded an awful lot like an Internet filter.
When he was made aware of this comparison Turnbull was quick to distance it from the idea, calling it “complete BS”. However whilst you might not want to call it a filter (obviously for fear of being tarred with the same brush, but I’m about to do that anyway) it, unfortunately, has all the makings of Internet filter. It’ll be overseen by the courts, which likely means there’ll be some kind of central list of blocked content, which all ISPs will be required to block using whatever means they have. If you cast your mind back a few years you’ll see that this was pretty much identical to Labor’s voluntary mandatory system, the one that was dumped for “budgetary” reasons.
The time has long since passed when this was just an issue for the technical elite and freedom of speech warriors of Australia as the entire country is far more invested in its access to the Internet than it ever has been. We want it to be fast and unfettered, ideals which the current government seems hellbent on trashing in order to appease big businesses both here and overseas. Unfortunately for them it looks like they’re slow learners, unable to recognise the mistakes of their predecessors and are simply dooming themselves to repeat them. Not that this was entirely unexpected, but that doesn’t stop it all from being just as rage inducing.
Back in July David Cameron announced that he’d be ensuring that all ISPs within the United Kingdom would implement a mandatory filtering scheme. The initiative drew a lot of negative attention, including a post from yours truly, as the UK’s citizens were rightly outraged that the government felt the need to fiddle with their Internet connections. The parallels between Cameron’s policy and that of the Clean Feed here in Australia were shocking in their similarity and I, like many others, thought that it’d likely never see the light of day. Unfortunately though it appears that not only has Cameron managed to get the big 4 Internet providers on board he’s also managed to broaden the scope far beyond its original intentions, much to the chagrin of everyone.
The base principle behind this initiative appears to be the same as the Clean Feed: to protect children from the vast swaths of objectionable content that reside on the Internet. Probably the biggest difference between however stems from its implementation as the Clean Feed was going to be enforced through legislation (although that later changed when it couldn’t pass parliament) Cameron’s filter is instead a voluntary code of practice that ISPs can adhere to. If the same thing was introduced in Australia it would be likely that none would support it however in the UK nearly all of the major suppliers have agree to implement it. The problem with this informal system though is that the scope of what should and should not be blocked isn’t guarded by any kind of oversight and, predictably, the scope has started to creep far beyond it’s initial goals.
Among the vast list of things that are making their way onto the list of “objectionable” content are such legitimate sites including sex education sites and even the UK equivalents of sites like Kids Helpline. Back when Conroy first proposed the filter this kind of scope creep was one of the biggest issues that many of us had with the proposal as the process by which they made the list was secretive and the actual list itself, even though it was eventually made public, was also meant to be kept from the general public. Cameron’s initiative does the same and, just as everyone was worried about, the list of objectionable content has grown far beyond what the general public was told it would. It’s happened so quickly that many have said (and rightly so) that it was Cameron’s plan all along.
If you ever had any doubts about just how bad the Clean Feed would have been in Australia then the UK’s initiative should serve as a good example of what we could have expected. The rapid expansion from a simple idea of protecting children from online pornography has now morphed into a behemoth where all content either fits into someone’s idea of what’s proper and what’s not. It’s only a matter of time before some politically sensitive content makes it onto the objectionable list, turning the once innocent filter into a tool of Orwellian oppression. I’d love to be proved wrong on this but I can’t say I’m hopeful given that the slippery slope that many of us predicted came true.
Fight this, citizens of the UK.
Do you remember the last time the Clean Feed hit the Australian news? I most certainly don’t but luckily I blogged about it every time it happened and the last time it crossed my path was over 2 years ago when some Australian ISPs decided to voluntarily block 500 sites. Suffice to say the No Clean Feed movement, something which I was an active part of, was completely successful and we haven’t had to speak of it again. Indeed I thought that any modern society looking to implement something like Australia’s Internet Filter would see just how politically toxic it was and then think twice about it.
Turns out I was wrong.
David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has announced a policy that looks eerily similar to the Clean Feed policy that Senator Conroy introduced all those years ago. Essentially it’s a pornography filter and while at first glance it looks like it might be opt-in it’s in fact going to be the dreaded opt-out, meaning that every Internet user in the UK will have their connection filtered unless they ask nicely for their ISP to stop. The rhetoric surrounding the policy is also eerily similar to the Clean Feed with a heavy focus on the impacts to children and attempting to curb the child pornography. If I didn’t know any better I’d say that they’d straight up copied everything about the Clean Feed and simply changed a few words here and there to make it their own. Predictably the Internet is in an uproar about this and the policy is getting all the scrutiny it deserves.
Cameron thinks that his filter will be infallible (gosh where have I heard that before) and that “it should not be the case that technically literate children can just flick the filters off at the click of a mouse without anyone knowing”. Now forgetting for a second that most parents aren’t exactly technically inclined it wouldn’t take a child genius to work out that a proxy site like HideMyAss was all that was required to bypass a filter like that. Sure you could then block those VPN sites but, hang on a second, they’re legitimate sites with completely legal use cases. So you either resign yourself to having an ineffectual filter or you go down that rather ugly path where you make anything that can bypass it illegal, something which I’m sure a lot of businesses would have something to say about.
Had Cameron done a little bit of homework he would have found out that he could win the same number of votes without alienating the tech community by saying that the filter would be opt-in. I’ve said many times in the past that I support such a policy because it gives concerned parents an easy option whilst leaving the majority of Internet users untouched. It’s also better for the ISPs as they can plan a filtering solution based on a minority of their users, rather than having to scale up a solution that has to support their entire user base. For some reason though the default position for policies like this seems to be always-on and anything else is seen as a weak compromise. Funnily enough the thing that would supposedly make such a system more effective will end up killing it in the end, even if Cameron doesn’t see it now.
So, people of the UK, it’s now time for you to do what us Australian’s did and rally together to fight Cameron’s filter policy. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, nor without any significant effort, but after 3 years we managed to kill our Clean Feed policy for good and made talk of it so politically toxic that neither party dares mention it again. You’ll now have to do the same: contacting members of parliament, staging demonstrations and, most important of all, not letting up until they drop this policy in favor of the next voting winning scheme.
We’ve got your back, fellow members of the Commonwealth.
I had really, truly believed that the Internet Filter was dead and buried. My last post about it was back in September last year and since then I’ve failed to come across anything solid about it apart from Conroy saying that he was still committed to the idea. It’s a good thing really since Australia didn’t appear to really want it and it wouldn’t have been effective anyway but the lack of an official release from the government saying that the idea had been canned meant that the Internet Filter always had a small chance of resurrecting itself. Indeed the much bigger issues facing Australia would seem to have the Internet Filter well buried, leaving us to leave that ugly part of Australia’s past behind us.
Unfortunately for us however it seems that nothing is as unkillable as an election promise to appease a vocal minority and 4 Australian Internet service providers have implemented their own form of what the Internet filter was to become:
MOST Australian internet users will have their web access censored next month after the country’s two largest internet providers agreed to voluntarily block more than 500 websites from view.
Telstra and Optus confirmed they would block access to a list of child abuse websites provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and more compiled by unnamed international organisations from mid-year.
“The ACMA will compile and manage a list of URLs of child abuse content that will include the appropriate subsection of the ACMA blacklist as well as child abuse URLs that are provided by reputable international organisations (to be blocked),” the spokesman said.
It seems that whilst the funding for a “mandatory voluntary” filter was indeed dropped in this year’s budget due to limited interest (or was that outright hatred?) the notion of a voluntary filter paid for entirely by the ISPs themselves was still on the table. Strangely enough 4 ISPs agreed to this idea including Telstra and Optus, two companies not known for doing things out of the good of their hearts unless they’re legislated to. I have no idea what their motivations are for doing so either since it just means more work for them without providing any sort of benefit to their end customers. Hell I don’t think this will generate any good will either as most people using these ISPs will be completely unaware of the changes.
They’re also implementing a filter that’s going to be completely ineffectual. Basically it’s just a simple list of URLs to be blocked, curated by ACMA and apparently they’re all sites that contain child abuse material on them. Such a filter disregards the fact that the vast majority of people attempting to access material like this aren’t going to be deterred by the simple fact the URL is blocked, especially when it’s trivial to change the URL at a moment’s notice. Additionally blocking URLs does nothing to stymie the distribution of such material through peer to peer networks and would more than likely drive more of them to use such services. In essence this is nothing more than a complete waste of time for everyone involved and really only serves as a political talking point.
The government and all ISPs involved could do themselves a huge favor by just dropping this idea entirely. It is politically toxic, ineffectual and above all has the potential to be misused in ways that could do Australia a great deal of harm both locally and internationally. Hopefully this is the last time that the Internet Filter will crawl out of its grave to give us one last scare but as they say the price for freedom is eternal vigilance and I’ll be ready with my shotgun should the bloated corpse of the Internet Filter dare try to rise again.
As far as I’m concerned the Internet Filter is dead, never to see the light of day again. With the Greens holding the balance of power in the senate and the minority Labor government relying on one Green and three independents in order to pass anything the proposed filter has absolutely no chance of getting through. On the flip side the amendments that would be required to get it through the senate would render the legislation pointless (even more so than it is now) and I don’t think Labor wants to be seen pushing such things through after all the black eyes they got from the past year or so. Still it seems like the dead horse still has a few good beatings left in it and from time to time Senator Conroy will pop up to remind us that it’s still on the table, despite how toxic it has been for them in the past.
Conroy has had the unfortunate luck of getting former Liberal party leader Malcolm Turnbull as his shadow minister and wasted no time ripping into Labor’s policies. Whilst there are some points I agree with Conroy his idea that other countries are filtering somehow justifies the government’s proposal is just plain wrong:
“In Finland, in Sweden, in a range of Western countries, a filter is in place today, and 80, 90, 95 per cent of citizens in those countries, when they use the internet, go through that filter.
“It has no impact on speed and anybody who makes a claim that it has an impact on speed is misleading people.
“If you want to be a strict engineer, it’s 170th of the blink of an eye, but no noticeable effect for an end user. So there is no impact and the accuracy is 100 per cent.”
For all my belly aching about the filter on this blog I’d never touched on the point that in fact yes, some modern western countries had implemented some kind of filter. Sweden’s scheme is the most innocuous of the lot with it merely being a DNS blacklist which will make banned sites just simply not respond (circumvented by using a different DNS provider). Finland’s is similar to Sweden’s in that it is also DNS based but it has been mired with controversy about its accuracy and performance issues that have arisen due to its use. The UK’s is probably the worst of the lot requiring all traffic to be passed through a filter that identifies sites based on the URL provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, a group of 14 people that includes 4 police officers responsible for maintaining the blacklist. Most people in the UK don’t know about this as it’s been around for quite some time and it has also been mired with controversy about its accuracy and accountability.
Depending on the scheme that’s used there is definitely performance impacts to consider. DNS based filtering has the least impact of the lot as a failed DNS query returns quite quickly although it has the potential to slow down sites that load content from blacklisted places¹. The UK’s URL filtering scheme is horrible as it requires the request to be intercepted, inspected and then compared against the list to see whether or not it should be blocked. For small lists and low volumes of traffic this is quite transparent and I have no doubts that it would work. However, even in tests commissioned by Conroy himself, these filters have shown to be unable to cope with high traffic sites should they make it onto the filter. ACMA’s own blacklist has several high traffic sites that would swamp any filter attempting to block them, drastically affecting performance of everyone who was on that filtered connection.
Justifying your actions based on the fact that others are doing it does not make what you do right. Conroy carefully steered clear of mentioning other states that were using censorship schemes that were more closely aligned to what his legislation has proposed (like China and North Korea). The fact remains however that any kind of Internet filter will prove to be ineffectual, inaccurate and will only serve to hurt legitimate users of the Internet. I applaud Conroy’s dedication to his ideas (namely the NBN) but the Internet filter is one bit of policy that he just needs to let go. It’s not winning them any favours anymore and the Labor government really needs all the help it can get over the next 3 years and dropping this turd of a policy would be the first step to reforming themselves, at least in the tech crowd’s eyes.
¹This is a rather contenious point as you could say that any site loading content from a backlisted site more than likely requires blacklisting itself. I’d agree with that point somewhat however the big issue is when a legitimate site gets blacklisted and ends up impacting a wider range of sites. In all the filters there’s been admissions that some material has been inappropriately blocked meaning that there’s always at least the potential for performance impacts.
It was just on 2 years ago that the first stray details of an Internet filter started to make their way into the public arena. Back then it was a little guy, meekly hobbling in after its failed predecessor NetAlert and making the promise to protect children online. Sure, we all thought, we have no problems with parents having the option to have their Internet filtered at request. I mean there are already companies doing that in Australia and realistically I understood that whilst parents are becoming increasingly more tech savvy not all of them are at the point where they could implement and understand a personal filter of their own. It didn’t take long for that almost nothing policy to morph into what it is today and the tech community violently opposed it with every fibre of their being. I’ve dedicated a good deal of my time to raising awareness about how bad this policy is and finally it seems that Senator Conroy might finally be listening.
It’s no secret that Labor is in a bit of trouble when it comes to their approval ratings. This was after being nigh untouchable for the majority of their term thanks to an extremely weak opposition but after enduring constant attacks from the Liberal guard dog Abbott Labor is struggling to win support. Consequently something like the Internet filter which, although unpopular amongst the tech community, could be easily shrugged off. Now it seems that with their margins for winning getting slimmer by the day they’ve decided to label the Internet filter as toxic policy:
The internet censorship policy has joined the government’s list of “politically toxic subjects” and will almost certainly be shelved until after the federal election, Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam says.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – already facing a voter backlash over several perceived policy failures – is expected to call the election before the end of the year and the feeling of many in Canberra is that next week will be the last sitting week of Parliament.
Parliament is not due to sit again until August 24, leaving little time to introduce the legislation and have it debated and passed in time for the election.
This is in addition to what Conroy said about a month ago in that he would be introducing the legislation in the later half of the year, fully knowing that an election would be called around the same time effectively shelving the legislation until they were in a better political position. It’s quite obvious that they’ve known for some time that the filter hasn’t been particularly popular, but unfortunately for them backing down on this legislation would probably do them as much harm as good. I say that mostly because there’s a couple lobbyists who seem to have a lot of sway with the Rudd government and pulling support for the filter would more than likely see them pull their support. That’s in addition to giving Abbot yet another bullet to fire at Rudd with his whole broken promises spin, something which I know Rudd would be keen to avoid.
I’ve said many times before that I would conditionally support an opt-out filter and fully support an opt-in filter. Mostly this is because I understand that some parents would much prefer the government to provide them a solution rather than trying to sort one out themselves, and that’s a valid view to hold. However I strongly object to being told that I’m no longer in control of deciding what I can and can’t see through the Internet when every other modern country in the world says the complete opposite. Had this policy been opt-in from the very beginning I believe that most major ISPs would already have the solutions in place as they know that most of their customers do not want it, and the implementations would be small scale. Still Conroy’s twisted vision of what needs to be done in order to make Australia a safe place for kids seems to mean that we’re all incapable of making such decisions for ourselves which, at its heart, is the core reason I reject the policy in its entirety.
Still for all the talk about how bad the filter is there are still those who are on our side fighting for some much more sensible policy options. Whilst I can appreciate that most concerns about policies like this are handled behind closed doors it’s comforting to know that there are members of the current incumbent government that are willing to come publicly against such idiotic legislation. Senator Lundy has, on several occasions, shown a complete understanding of the issues at hand and the concerns of the community at large. It still strikes me as odd that Conroy doesn’t seem to get it after all this time not even wanting to do public consultation on the matter nor even attempt to amend the policy in the hopes of getting it past parliament. Maybe I’m just a fool to believe that facts can overcome people’s biases.
I really can not wait for this policy to die the death it so rightly has coming to it. Whilst I appreciate the amount of blog fodder its has tossed my way I still don’t like hearing about it every couple months because that means it still has potential to come into law which would be one of the most devastating blows to freedom that Australia would ever see. Maybe we’ll see a turnaround at this election in Conroy’s electorate and the next one to replace him will be more level headed about the whole Internet filter.
A man can dream, can’t he?
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of our Senator Conroy and his proposed Internet filter, even though I have him to thank for the original creation of this blog and it’s subsequent success. Apart from delay after delay there’s been little to no movement from Conroy on the policy despite it being increasingly unpopular. Initially I was able to write him off as just a figurehead for the Rudd government’s slight bent towards a nanny state for Australia but as time has gone by Conroy has dissolved what small amount of hope I held out that that was true. Conroy believes in the policy wholly and damn those who would oppose him.
Most recently the biggest talking about the Internet filter was that it was going to be delayed until after the election, hoping to skirt some backlash over the unpopular policy. Not only did that ignore the fact that tech crowd saw this move for what it was (and would likely vote accordingly) soon after the announcement they back peddled with almost breakneck speed. Then, in a move that didn’t surprise anyone, they went ahead and delayed it anyway:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says he plans to introduce legislation for the Federal Government’s internet filter in the second half of the year.
Senator Conroy had intended to introduce the legislation in the first half of 2010.
The Government announced the filter two years ago as part of its cyber safety program to protect children from pornography and offensive material. Last year it ran tests on the system.
But the plan has been criticised by internet users who claim it will slow download speeds and lead to unwarranted censorship.
Right so you prematurely announced that you would delay introducing the legislation (in a vain effort to save votes) and back flipped on that position (to try and save face that you were delaying the policy) and then went ahead and delayed the policy (in an effort to save votes?!?!?!?). Not only has Conroy shown dedication to incredibly unpopular policy he’s beginning to show complete disrespect for the exact people he’s meant to be representing. The tech crowd had little love for Conroy before and any support for the man has now vanished in a public display of incompetence. Whilst there are many bigger issues that will cost the Rudd government votes they really can’t afford to lose yet another block of voters, and Conroy isn’t doing them any favours.
Still all of that could be easily written off as political games save for the fact that Conroy has launched multiple vitriolic attacks on several Internet giants. Now granted the ones who wield the most power in the Internet world are the ones who carry the most responsibility and none are as big as Google. Still the culture and policies implemented by Google are really some of the best on the Internet when it comes to user privacy and security. This didn’t stop Conroy from launching several attacks at them, with the latest ratcheting up the crazy to whole new levels:
Instead, Conroy launched tirades on search giant Google and social networking site Facebook over privacy issues raised with both corporations over the past week. The Senator called Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data the “single greatest privacy breach in history“, and attacked the social networking site over a failure to keep user’s data private.
That classy one liner I’ve bolded for effect is probably one of the best bits of hyperbolic rhetoric that I’ve seen Conroy spew forth. The Wi-Fi data that Google collected was initially only meant to be the SSIDs (the wireless network name) which they could then use to augment their geo-location software, ala Skyhook. Unfortunately they also captured some payload data as well during the course of their collection and got slammed by the German government because of it. Realistically though the data was fairly useless to them as they couldn’t have been in range of the access points for any meaningful amount of time, so the data they would have couldn’t have been more than a few MB at most. Additionally if you had set up security on your wireless access then the data they have is completely and utterly unusable as it would appear encrypted to anyone who captured it. Saying that this was a breach of privacy is a best misleading and at worst completely ignorant of the actual facts.
Conroy doesn’t stop there either, hoping to drum up support by lambasting yet another Internet giant with his choice brand of ignorant vitriol:
The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has attacked the social networking site Facebook and its former college student founder for what he says is its ”complete disregard” for privacy.
Senator Conroy is under fire from many in the internet industry for his proposed mandatory net filter. He has previously attacked Google, a key critic of the filtering plan, but last night in a Senate estimates hearing turned his attention to Facebook.
”Facebook has also shown a complete disregard for users’ privacy lately,” Senator Conroy said in response to a question from a government senator.
I’ll relent for a second and say that Facebook has had some trouble recently when it has come to user’s privacy. However the fact remains that they can’t reveal any information about you that you don’t give them in the first place and putting information online that you don’t expect anyone else to see is akin to leaving your belongings on the sidewalk and expecting them not to get taken. Facebook may have had their troubles trying to find their feet when it comes to user privacy but their response has been rapid albeit somewhat confused. They’ve heard the criticisms and are responding to them, hardly what I would call a “complete disregard” for user privacy.
Conroy has shown time and time again that he has little respect for the industry he’s meant to represent as the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His constant, vitriolic attacks on those who’ve been in the industry for a long time (much longer than he’s been a minister for such things) shows a flawed belief that his vision for Australia’s digital future is the right one. I and the vast majority of the technical crowd have opposed the Conroy and his Internet filter from the start and in the coming election I’d bet my bottom dollar that you’ll see a noticeable swing against him for his repeated blows against us. It would seem that the only way to kill the Internet filter is to remove him from office and it is my fervent hope that the good people of Victoria will do Australia a service and vote accordingly this year.
In all honesty I’m starting to get bored with bashing the Internet filter. I’ve attacked it from almost every angle and there’s no way that the current idea that Conroy and his department have drummed up can be spun into something that I could wholeheartedly endorse. I’ve been willing to put my partial support behind a filter that at the very least lets you opt-out but even then I’m doing so because apart from killing the legislation completely it seems to be the only idea that’s gaining any traction in parliament. It’s been almost 2 years since the Rudd government started talking about a filter and many months have passed since it was supposed to be implemented and frankly I just keep hoping it will go away so I don’t have to think about it anymore.
It’s no secret that it’s not particularly popular policy, especially with our friendly Internet giants and overseas counterparts. This is especially true with the technology community who have polled overwhelmingly against the filter, to the tune of over 90%. There’s still been little study of what the wider Australian populace thinks about the policy but what has been done shows that most people don’t want the government nor ISPs to be in charge of what they or their children see on the Internet and the majority are concerned that once the filter has been implemented it will be abused for political purposes.
But who am I kidding, if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty much guaranteed you’re in opposition to this filter as well and you already know all these facts. What has just recently come to pass is the admission by omission of the government that even they don’t believe this is popular policy and they’re pushing it to the backburner so it doesn’t become an election issue:
KEVIN Rudd has put another election promise on the backburner with his controversial internet filtering legislation set to be shelved until after the next election. A spokeswoman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said yesterday the legislation would not be introduced next month’s or the June sittings of parliament.
With parliament not sitting again until the last week of August, the laws are unlikely to be passed before the election.
Labor promised before the last election it would force internet service providers to block access to illegal content such as child pornography and X-rated images.
With Conroy spouting such fervent rhetoric against those who would oppose the scheme you’d think that he was damned sure this was what the Australian public wanted and would do anything to see it passed. Being held back until after the election tells us a couple things. First Rudd doesn’t believe that pushing this through (and thus following through on an election promise) will win him any favours and you can be damned sure the tech crowd would vote against him in droves if he did. Secondly the rhetoric that Conroy spews constantly mirrors his own views quite consistently as it wasn’t him but one of his spokespeople who made the announcement. Had his belief in the filter been faltering in anyway you can be assured that he would be the one talking about it, since up until now he’s been the only one talking to the press about it.
Broken election promises are nothing new but when something like this, which started out as a proposal that no one cared about since NetAlert failed and it was going to be opt-in (even that apparently wasn’t feasible), gets pushed back again and again you start to question why it keeps happening. I’ve always been of the mind that the government is trying to let it die a slow and quiet death so that they can say they tried to do something but ramble off a list of excuses to save face. Traegically it seems that we’re doomed to a constant cycle of delays and rhetorical battles between the government and the wider world with no end in sight. If they would just hurry up and try to pass this thing we could hopefully see it shot down once and for all. It seems for now we will be denied this pleasure for at least another 5 months.
You know whilst I appreciate that the Internet filter was the trigger for the creation of this blog and has been a healthy source of fodder for me to post on I still wish it would just up and die already. It’s been said time and time again that the filter won’t achieve its goals and will only serve to make Australia more of an Internet backwater than it already is. When you’re planning to roll out a national broadband network at the same time it seems rather counter-intuitive to go ahead and strangle it with an infrastructure bottle-neck that makes said network almost null and void.
That being said I still stand by my position that the filter, at least in its current form, will not make its way into reality. The tech crowd is universally opposed to it and there’s increasing pressure from the giants of the Internet (Google, et al) to abandon such ideas. It seems now that even our good friends across the ocean are starting to have concerns that such a policy would be harmful not only to Australia and its citizens, but also to relations abroad:
Asked about the US view on the filter plan US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said: “The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues.
…In a speech in January US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put internet freedom at the heart of American foreign policy as part of what she called “21st century statecraft”. The US, she said, would be seeking to resist efforts by governments around the world to curb the free flow of information on the internet and encouraged US media organisations to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship”.
Clay’s statement added: “The US Government’s position on internet freedom issues is well known, expressed most recently in Secretary Clinton’s January 21st address. We are committed to advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally.”
Conroy’s first response was to say that hey hadn’t heard anything and failed to make any comment on what his opinion was on the matter. I don’t blame him for doing that either as up until recently he was only fighting the people of Australia and a few corporations. Now he’s got to deal with the US putting pressure on him to not go ahead with his proposal and he can’t openly attack them like he has done with Google leaving him with very few rhetorical options. I’m sure his spin doctors are working overtime on this one and I don’t envy the job they have (I mean really how to do brush off an attack from the US government?).
More importantly there’s also the small issue of an agreement that Australia and the US signed in about 6 years ago, the Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement. Back when it was first introduced there was hefty opposition to the proposal, mostly from Australia’s side, as it had the potential to wreck havok on things like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and forced Australia to make changes to its intellectual property laws. Despite all this the agreement passed and came into effect on the 1st of January 2005 and hasn’t really come up in political discussions since.
The FTA was much futher reaching than the issues that were brought up in during negotiations. Other areas it covered were financial services, environmental issues, investment and government procurement. More interestingly however there are 2 key areas that the FTA covers that are quite likely to be affected by the proposed Internet filter, and they are:
This section details agreed upon terms by both countries to assure fair trade between the telecommunications industries in each country. The rules specifically exclude measures relating to broadcast or cable distribution of radio or television programming.
Among other provisions, the agreement lays out rules for settling disputes among the members of the telecommunications industries in one country with the members in the other. It entitles enterprises to:
- seek timely review by a regulator or court to resolve disputes;
- seek review of disputes regarding appropriate terms, conditions, and rates for interconnection; and
- to obtain judicial review of a determination by a regulatory body.
The parties agreed to co-operate on mechanisms to facilitate electronic commerce, not to impose customs duties on digital products and for each to apply non-discriminatory treatment to the digital products of the other.
The first relates to how Australia and the US will provide communications infrastructure and services to each other in a fair and equitable way and provides a framework for settling disputes. The bolded point outlines an area where the FTA could be invoked if Australia decides to implement a filter. Whilst the debate is still open on just how much an Internet filter would harm Australia’s ability to do business on the Internet the greater tech community is of the mind that it will be detrimental, regardless of implementation. Whilst this doesn’t directly damage the FTA it could be used as an injunction to stop such a filter from becoming reality, at least for a short while.
Probably the more important part of the FTA that is directly affected by the implementation of the filter is the Electronic Commerce section which explicitly states that there be no discriminatory treatment to digital products. This can extend to information on subjects such as abortion, euthanasia or drug harm minimisation which under the current filter proposal would be outright banned, but are still perfectly legal within the US. There’s also the possibility, thanks to the lack of transparency of the filter and its blacklist, that an online retailer could end up blocked from people within Australia and be effectively barred from trading with us.
I’ll admit that the links to the FTA are a bit tenuous but there’s no doubt in my mind that businesses with an online presence in Australia will suffer under the proposed filter legislation. The FTA is just another bit of ammunition to argue against the filter and with the US now putting pressure on Conroy I’m sure that we’re not too far away from the FTA being mentioned at a higher level. Conroy really has his work cut out for him if he thinks he’ll be able to convince the US that the filter is a good idea.
Would the filter require the FTA to be amended? I doubt it, but then again I’m not particularly qualified to comment on that. If you know (or have a good opinion) let me know in the comments below.
Tip of the hat to David Cottrill for giving me the idea of mashing the FTA with the Internet filter.
Way back when, long before I got involved in blogging as a means of chronicling my various exploits in relation to Australia’s Internet filter the policy itself was really nothing to get excited about. Taking a step back into the distance past we can find its roots in the NetAlert program that sought to provide free private Internet filters to all families that wanted them. To say that the program was a failure and complete waste of time is harsh but accurate, as the usage statistics showed a severely disproportional amount of money spent vs actual usage of the program. It was a fairly quiet failure to and if you’d pulled anyone off the streets you could easily have forgiven them for not knowing anything about it. Overall NetAlert was just another government boondoggle and it died the quick quiet death it deserved.
Conroy decided to up the ante a little bit and put forth the beginnings of the Internet filter proposal not too long after that. Having survived the NetAlert program without any noticeable damage to the freedom of the Internet and the IT profession as a whole the netizens community shrugged it off as well. At this time the filter proposal wasn’t as malicious as it is today with the option of being able to opt out being one of its defining characteristics. Sure we were annoyed that we’d have to tell our ISPs that we’d prefer them not to filter our Internet (which in the public eye puts you in the same category as paedophiles, criminals and sexual deviants) but it wouldn’t be too much hassle and the government could sing their success from the rooftops, even if we didn’t really agree with them.
It didn’t take too long however for a bombshell to drop, you couldn’t opt out.
And so spawned the No Clean Feed movement, along with this blog and many others. I’ve analyzed it from all angles and there’s not been one use case that’s had the Internet filter coming out smelling like roses. This coupled with the fact that the policy just doesn’t seem to die despite massive delays and public backlash makes it all the more scary that such an abomination make actually make its way into reality. There is however a small glimmer of hope:
Labor Senator Kate Lundy plans to propose a filter “opt out” when the legislation goes before caucus.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in my proposal,” she told The Australian.
“The feedback I’m getting back from colleagues is that there are concerns around freedom of speech and lack of parental empowerment.”
Senator Lundy said the Conroy filter took control away from parents.
To date that has been the only sensible idea that I could ever support with an Internet filter for Australia. Why it has taken over a year and a half to come full circle and propose that we let people opt out (or better yet, opt in) is beyond me, but it signals that there’s enough pressure from the wider public to make at least a few backbenchers uneasy about putting their vote behind legislation that won’t buy them any favours.
The interesting, but not unexpected, result of Lundy seeking to amend the legislation is the rest of the Labor government becoming rather uneasy about the whole subject. There’s tangible opposition mounting on both sides of parliament but many of the more conservative members are sticking to their guns and not renouncing support for the filter. The reasons for this are twofold. The first is that many members can’t quite bring themselves to oppose the filter save for associated themselves with child pornographers and other miscreants. I’d bet my dollar on this being a lack of education on their part as they don’t really understand how ineffectual and detrimental such a filter would be. Thus they tow the popularist line of protecting the children and the wider public from the deprived hedonism of that dark place we call the Internet.
The second is just pure politics, they don’t want to be seen as changing opinions lest they be seen as playing to the popularist movement. That I can understand, but will never condone.
I still hold out the belief that this will die a slow and agonizing death but every news story that crops up about the Internet filter is just more salt in an old wound. With people like Lundy causing a stir in parliament and making the appropriate headlines I’m sure we’ll soon reach a critical mass of public opinion that will help sway some of the more stalwart members across to our side but we’re still far from being in clear on this one and I urge you to support the No Clean Feed movement in any way you can.
As much as I love all things Chinese, I’d prefer my Internet to stay Australian.