a filter-tipped web?

Sen Stephen Conroy

Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, wants to “address the range of issues and challenges faced by families when they are online”.

He has proposed legislation to “require all ISPs to block material rated Refused Classification that is hosted on overseas servers”.

What Senator Conroy has suggested goes well beyond any mechanism approved by the Australian public to limit their access to the web. The government has no mandate for anything other than opt-in filtering of the internet.

And there are good reasons for that.

We let individuals indulge in unhealthy, anti-social, expensive and increasingly unpopular habits like smoking cigarettes – even though we know this freedom comes at a terrible cost to the individual and the community. No-one gets arrested for smoking tobacco, unless they do it in the ‘wrong’ place. We all know neither tobacco product manufacturers nor smokers are held to account for what they cost the community, but we don’t want to impinge on the right to smoke.

We let people drink alcohol to excess – even though we know it creates and exacerbates vast and unmanageable problems in social and domestic violence, community and race relations, health and poverty. Not to mention the road toll. We don’t arrest people affected by alcohol until they have committed a crime. We all know that’s way too late, but we don’t want to impinge on the right to drink.

We let people gamble away all their money, repeatedly and over time – even though we know that the financial and social cost to the community far outweighs the money that governments gain by taxing gambling. We don’t arrest people for throwing away their money. We all know gambling is most prevalent among people least able to afford it, but we don’t want to impinge on the right to bet.

And Senator Conroy wants to arrest me for looking at a website that explains euthanasia? The pros and cons of helping a dying person shorten their agony? That’s just wrong.

Despite its honest and admirable aims, the internet filter proposed by Senator Conroy is out of step with Australian community standards. It makes choosing to view certain web content a crime in the interests of preventing a possible future crime that may or may not be committed. We don’t do that with tobacco, alcohol or gambling.

When this – or any – Australian government can get the nation as a whole to approve laws that make alcohol, tobacco and poker machines illegal because they sometimes might contribute directly to crime, THEN you can consider censoring the internet for the same reasons. You might also want to take out all the books in the public library that explain nuclear physics, how to change SIM cards in a phone and how to load a gun. Good luck selling that message to the Australian public.

All of this assumes, of course, that ISP-filtering will actually work – that it will prevent people from accessing material that is morally unacceptable or likely to lead to crime. And here’s where the argument against the filter becomes overwhelming. Because it won’t work.

At a technical level, Senator Conroy is kidding himself – and the community – if he thinks a filter is going to stop people accessing illegal material on the web. We can’t even come up with a way to stop 14 year olds hacking government-issue school laptops! We can’t stop people setting up Facebook pages that taunt the families of hate-crime victims. We still have no answer to cyber-bullying.

People who seek out child pornography or bomb-making procedures will not be inhibited by an ISP filter. All it will end up doing is limiting web access by people who aren’t looking for that stuff anyway. Access by people who do look for it on Google – because they are young, naive, misguided or corrupt – is better managed by individual filtering at the user end. But the real baddies won’t be Googling for open websites because that isn’t the most effective way for them to receive and distribute offensive material.

Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion that all of this is just the Government playing politics, trying to gather support in the lead up to the next election by pulling out the “Don’t you want to stop child pornography”? card. I believe Stephen Conroy is genuine in his wish to help stop some of the most repugnant behaviour in our society. I also believe he is misguided, misinformed and has no hope of succeeding in his intention of impeding child sexual abuse or terrorist acts by imposing an ISP-based filter on internet access.

This government, and all governments, will have to take a bit more responsibility than that, in educating consumers and providing cost-effective means to control internet access at the individual level. In a world where we accept and endorse the right to a smoke, a drink and a bet – until the consequences become dire enough to be called a crime – it’s always going to be difficult controlling what people browse on the web.

It’s about the people, Senator Conroy, and for that reason you could do worse than talk to us. Because we’re the designers, developers, usability experts, information architects and content managers who built and continue to grow the web, who set up the access mechanisms and who load the content. It’s our job to analyse and understand how and why people use the web, and to do it better than anyone else you seemed to have consulted so far.

The reality is though, that none of this has much to do with the web, or the internet, or ISPs and filters. That people do seek out this material is a reflection on us, not on the web.

To achieve Senator Conroy’s aims, it will take education, information and – especially – honesty, particularly in facing up to the apparently ordinary people in our community who sustain the international market in material related to the worst aspects of human behaviour.

That, of course, is much tougher than censoring the internet.

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