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Time to turn the page on net filtering

By Peter Chen - posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009


While reports that Senate Independent Nick Xenophon is unlikely to support the government's proposed internet filtering system probably came as bad news to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, this was received with some relief by other parts of the Labor Party.

This relief is not simply contained to those elements of the party who spearheaded the 1990s campaign against similar proposals under the Howard government or NSW Young Labor (who’ve already criticised the approach). Pragmatists in the Party have had concerns that the proposal presented the worst of both political worlds: a system that gives you no thanks when it works, and where every failure is carefully watched by motivated members of the community who take great pleasure in highlighting the flaws in the system.

This problem also dogged the previous government. Publicly-subsidised desktop filters received scant attention until a year 10 Victorian student went public with a crack allowing him to bypass the filter while giving parents the illusion that it was still functioning.

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While this type of flaw encourages governments to look to ISP-level filtering, the political palatability of these systems is hard to determine in advance of their wide scale implementation. While the technical community have a keen eye for this issue and have watched government developments over many years, the level of public awareness of this issue remains comparatively low, making it difficult to determine the reaction of the public until after the implementation of filtering.

It is true that comparisons can be drawn between the proposed Australian approach to the UK, where a “Cleanfeed” system is already in place, however the potential scope of the proposed Australian version was considerably more ambitious, based as it is on the existing internet classification system (adapted from film classifications) with the government considering means to filter other problematic services - like those pesky peer-to-peer protocols copyright holders hate so much.

This is in sharp contrast to the UK's existing “minimum level” filtering which focuses purely on sites that host child sexual exploitation materials.

While the government indicated that the proposed Australian filter could list 10,000 sites, as a complaints-based model the list would be likely to swell as conservatives identify the new system as far more robust than that introduced by the previous government. Under the current system, a complaint against material hosted in Australia only generates a takedown notice, with content simply likely to move offshore.

For those with an eye to the potential backlash of a public that finds itself surprised by new regulations that cut of access to content, look to the United States where the long-advertised digital television switch led to considerable confusion as screens went blank. While only a limited number of stations actually turned off their analogue signals because of a transition delay, 28,000 consumers swamped the federal communications regulator with calls the first day of the transition. This risk marks a significant difference from the late 1990s: the internet has become a far more integral part of most Australian's daily lives, and issues that affect it have greater personal, and therefore political, salience.

The complexity here is that these political disincentives may provide a motivation for the government to largely abandon their engagement with online risk issues, or engage in a trading game with Senator Xenophon - whose key concern is a further expansion of online regulation to address internet gambling - in the same way the Howard government traded horses with then Senator Harradine. It probably is trite to note that the failure of that exercise in logrolling led us to the current regulatory system the Minister sees as such a failure.

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This, however, would be a bad outcome for other reasons. While mass filtering approaches are a flawed approach to dealing with online risks, the public has genuine and real concerns about the internet that they would like to see governments take action on.

While the public support increased investigation and policing of child sexual exploitation, the over-focus on this one specific area of concern has failed to protect the public interest, both at the practical level - it’s one-eyed - and at the political level - the censorship model creates political barriers to action.

This is a pity as the increasingly insecure nature of online networks has been an area of government responsibility that has been systematically neglected by successive governments: largely because these issues of consumer protection are neither easy to address or neatly within the scope of the Commonwealth's powers.

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About the Author

Dr Peter John Chen is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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