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The perplexing Internet debate

By Mark Newton - posted Thursday, 30 October 2008


Ever since public computer networks burst onto the scene in the 1980's, the subject of online content regulation has been a controversial one.

Successive governments of all stripes have considered the issue, and largely looked upon the free-ranging exchange of networked content with disapproval, if not outright disdain. Nearly 20 years ago the Senate Select Committee into Online Services produced a frightening raft of predictions about the societal decay that'd naturally extend from the public's exposure to material common in the BBS (Bulletin Board System) world, and various repetitions of the effort have drawn the same conclusions ever since.

Unfortunately for the censorship advocates, our own experience tells us that all the predictions of doom, destruction and despair have been wrong.

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We've now experienced 20 years of ubiquitous access to the Internet, and have brought up a whole generation of jacked-in kids, who have grown up into responsible parents themselves.

These people are completely comfortable with the Internet, having grown up using Google to assist with their physics homework, keeping in touch with their friends all over the world with email, exchanging happy-snaps of their holidays on blogs and Facebook, and inhaling information from the inexhaustible reservoir of sometimes crass, but often invaluable content on the World Wide Web.

The Australian public has acclimatised themselves to the Internet, and adapted both their lives and the network itself to suit their lifestyles. Australian parents are comfortable with the Internet, barring some background-radiation levels of anxiety, quelled by means of a straightforward dose of supervision and PC filtering software. In a world which has featured nearly three decades of uncensored access to online services, to advocate for handing it over to government control is a radical position.

Which is why this latest resurrection of the online censorship debate is so perplexing.

When Senator Alston last raised the issue in 1999, the Internet was still a scary place that hardly anyone had experienced. Nobody in Australia had seen a URL on a bus ad, or posted their baby videos on YouTube. It was easy to stir up "moral panic" about Internet content because hardly anyone knew what it was, and the speakers with the loudest megaphones were the politicians doing the stirring.

But in 2008? Not so much.

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Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has brought the issue up again, and much to his apparent surprise it doesn't seem to be tracking as well as it has in the past.

Not only does everyone know that the Internet isn't frightening or uncontrollable; not only do the population's own experiences clash with the Minister's hysterical allusions to unrestricted access to child pornography; but, much to the Minister's apparent astonishment, he doesn't even have the loudest voice anymore.

In the past, politicians have been able to shut-down debate by casting McCarthyist slurs which compare opponents to child pornographers: but when Mr Conroy used the same tactic in Senate Estimates on October 20, the blogosphere's incredulous ridicule seeped through into the commercial media, yielding headlines about the Minister's disgraceful debasement of the public discourse.

In the past, politicians have been able to monopolise the debate by having disproportionate access to media. Not so for Mr Conroy, who has been so thoroughly discredited by the controversy that his press office has refused to comment to media outlets since October 24, while the new media represented by the blogosphere is atwitter with fulminating dissent.

In the past, politicians have had message-control; but this time it's different, with the online community pre-empting the Minister with their own talking points, their own arguments, their own technical and financial analyses, and boundless quantities of embarrassing ridicule on the Minister's position. The Minister has been caught flat-footed without a response, and, as reported by Asher Moses in The Age on October 24, his first and most public reaction has been to try to silence my opposing political views by exercising inappropriate political pressure on my employer.

Every broken promise is coming under scrutiny. Every debating point is being disassembled and debunked. Every piece of emotional extremist rhetoric emanating from the Minister's office is being deconstructed for political jargon, turned around, and aimed right back at its originator. And new supporters who join the Minister, such as Family First and Senator Nick Xenophon on October 27, are instantly associated with the same criticisms.

The online community's argument is a simple one:

  • there's no problem to solve because actual illegal material on the Internet is so rare that nobody ever finds it;
  • even if there was a problem to solve, there's no serious public demand to solve it;
  • even if there was a public demand to solve it, none of the solutions proposed by the ALP will be effective, and the Government has handily provided original research to decimate their own case;
  • even if they were effective, they'll slow down Internet access and reduce Internet reliability, as shown by the same original research released by the Minister on July 22;
  • even if the proposed solutions had perfect performance and reliability, none of them are affordable;
  • even if they were affordable, they'll be implemented terribly by the same underclass of bureaucrat that deemed Mohammad Haneef a terrorist, or Bill Henson a pornographer. The salivating of hangers-on like Family First and Nick Xenophon, lobbying to have the blacklist expanded before it's even in force, demonstrate perfectly how open the system will be to political manipulation and lobbying;
  • even if they were implemented perfectly by perfect administrators, the blacklists will inevitably leak, be published on the Internet, whereupon they'll fall into the hands of nefarious individuals and consequently enable child abuse all over the world, with the direct assistance of the Commonwealth of Australia; and
  • there's no possibility that the blacklists won't leak. Finland's list has already leaked, CyberPatrol's encrypted blacklist is cracked every six months or so. It's delusional to believe that Australia will be any better at securing its officially sanctioned list of Child Porn and Terrorism sites than anyone else. It might take a month, a year, five years, ten years, or two hours. But it will leak, secrets always do. Pressing it into service will be like setting a ticking time bomb, and when it explodes there'll be a thronging multitude of critics pointing at Senator Conroy and saying, "I told you so, you were warned, but you did it anyway".

This isn't a complicated argument. To justify the ALP's policy, cogent, successful arguments against each and every one of those independent points will need to be mounted.

The Minister's behaviour isn't likely to encourage the production of such arguments. Aside from the four days of "radio silence" coming from his department post October 24, we've seen him malign critics by accusing them of "speculating" about details he's refused to provide, label proponents of these entirely reasonable arguments as "extremist lobby groups", and attack his questioners by comparing them to child pornographers.

While it'd be nice to pretend that we could have a grown-up discussion about these issues, the topic's political history doesn't lend much hope.

Is this time going to be different?

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About the Author

Mark Newton is a Network Engineer at a large Australian Internet Service Provider, and has been working on, in and for the Internet since 1989. He specialises in large-scale high-performance networks, and is a subject matter expert in what have been come to be known as "filtering technologies". He appears herein speaking only for himself.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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