Australia's contrary Internet tendencies

Australia is a weird country. Given that the country's broadband is amongst the worst in the developed world, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a plan to build a national broadband network. The ambitious project will take up to eight years, cost $43 billion, create tens of thousands of jobs and will see fibre-optic cable laid out to individual houses.

The fibre-optic network, providing speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, will cover 90 percent of Australians, while the rest will have access to a mix of wireless and satellite connections.

And yet Rudd lost thousands of Twitter followers in the last weeks. What happened?

In a move that somehow contradicts everything the national broadband plan stands for, the federal government decided to push ahead with its internet censorship plan.

Under this scheme a mandatory filter will block sites found on the secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist and blacklists held by other countries. Moreover, a wide scope of content could be prohibited under the proposed filtering regime. As the Australian Google blog explains:

Refused Classification (or RC) is a broad category of content that includes not just child sexual abuse material but also socially and politically controversial material—for example, educational content on safer drug use—as well as the grey realms of material instructing in any crime, including politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia.

As I've pointed out before, the scheme is expensive, ineffective and easy-to-circumvent. It potentially slows down an already slow internet and cripples Australia's competitiveness in the global marketplace. The scope of the planned scheme also sets a precedent for a Western democracy by uniquely combining a mandatory framework and a much wider scope of content.

Similar to the controversy surrounding the introduction of an R-18 rating for digital games, this move seems to be a case of a vocal minority of social conservatives trying to impose their worldview on the rest of society.

One of the first groups to be backgrounded on the results of the filter trial was the Australian Christian Lobby, and not the entire Australian public. It seems the government is concerned about defying those who act as (self-appointed) guardians of community standards.

On the other hand, the censorship scheme does not enjoy the overwhelming support of the Australian public. A poll that was commissioned by GetUP! found only four percent of Australians want the government to be responsible for protecting children online. 

The move alienates potential Labor voters, while the people who care about these issues are unlikely to vote for the party in the first place. It would also be interesting to see what would happen if the Liberals, now under leadership of conservative Tony Abbott, were to win the next election.

It seems that if fast broadband is introduced into Australia, its citizens will only be allowed to use it on the government's terms. If something violates the moral standards of the country's leaders it must be hidden or ruled out. Rudd already demonstrated this tendency towards social engineering in the discussions about the controversial pictures of Bill Henson.

Australia, it seems, still suffers from a conservative hangover that already led to unparalleled censorship campaigns in the Western World—90 years ago. 

However, times and media have changed. These days the concern is not what will and will not be blocked, but who will and will not be able to get around it.

As tech writer Kathryn Small puts it:

"Conroy will not be censoring the internet. He'll be censoring people who do not know much about the internet." [A]nyone with a vested interest who knows enough about software design will be able to circumvent the system. "The real problem is Conroy will create a two-tiered system [with] a massive disparity between the 'haves' and 'have nots' of computer literacy."


A Liberal Democracy on Par With China and Saudi Arabia: Australia's 'Net Filter Plan

The internet: decentralised, largely unregulated, not belonging to anyone, knowledge flowing freely. Australia: Traditionally having one of the strictest censorships of a liberal democracy, banning R18+ video games and behind pretty much everyone else in terms of broadband speeds. How do these two mix? Exactly… The Australian Government under Kevin Rudd plans to impose a mandatory filter for all internet users that will block sites found on the secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist and blacklists held by other countries. The cost: AUS$189 million. The result:

Laboratory test results released in June by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found available filters frequently let through content that should be blocked, incorrectly block harmless content and slow network speeds by up to 87 per cent.

Where to begin… First of all there's the technical aspect: All the experts might want to read this piece on Arstechnica, which in very technical terms explains why this scheme is doomed to fail; for the rest of us there's this Register article pointing out some of the issues encountered with censorship software in other parts of the world:

Problems with "socialism" were highlighted in a piece this week in the Australian Daily Telegraph, which gleefully pointed up the link between Labour and male impotence. Apparently, filters in other countries have hit problems with their ideology for the simple reason that it also contains the word "cialis" – an anti-impotence drug frequently promoted via spam email.

They also cite a story told by former Communications Minister Helen Coonan about the time when she attempted to order some strawberry muffins online. Her department’s filter system took exception to her use of "muff" – and the order did not go through.

Similar issues have occurred over the years in the UK with home-grown filter software that is not fully thought through. In one case, an Insurance company was rather surprised to find that after implementation of its in-house filtering system, direct mail campaigns to Essex, Sussex and Middlesex ceased entirely – as did communication with the inhabitants of Scunthorpe.

A couple of years back, respondents to a Home Office Consultation in the UK were surprised to find some submissions automatically rejected by a filtering system set up in one part of that Department. The consultation was on the subject of extreme pornography – and the filter took exception to receiving emails with the word "pornography" in the title.

Secondly there's the issue of free speech. As explained here the Government has been pursuing a two-tiered scheme. The first tier would be a "clean feed" that filters porn and "illegal content," and it would be optional. The second tier would filter only "illegal content" and would be mandatory for all Australians. In short: Australians won't be able to opt out of the government's Internet filtering initiative.


This of course raises the question: What defines "illegal"? Apparently only half of the - secret and unaccountable - ACMA blacklist consists of child porn while the rest is mainly X-rated porn and sexual fetish material. And of course the calls for more are coming in: A statement by Family First member Steve Fielding indicates that any material rated above R 18+ (including X 18+ and "refused classification") should fall under the mandatory blacklist and could not be accessed through any Australian ISP. Such material is currently legal for Australian adults.

And it doesn't stop at porn:

"Any group with an axe to grind and political clout will be lobbying the Government to blacklist websites which they object to," EFA spokesman Dale Clapperton said.


Greens Senator Scott Ludlam expressed similar concerns when grilling Senator Conroy in Senate Estimates last week.

He said all sorts of politically sensitive material could be added to the blacklist and otherwise legitimate sites - for example, YouTube - could be rendered inaccessible based on content published by users.

"The blacklist ... can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes - euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet," Senator Ludlam said.

Will disagreeable Wikipedia articles be banned? Reports by the opposition which highlight the failures of the Government in charge? Articles denying climate change? Where do extremist views start and stop?

Then there's potential of Big Content throwing another hissy fit about piracy: Will it be ringing up the Aussie government soon to have tracker sites added to the blacklist?

As Michael Malone, managing director iiNet, puts it:

"[This] is happening in two other countries - China and Saudi Arabia, that's who he's [Communications Minister Stephen Conroy] lined himself up with."

Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has another evil example at hand:

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world."

In short: The scheme is expensive, won't work technically, abuses of civil liberties, impairs free speech and makes an abysmally slow internet even more slower.

No wonder that, except for some fringe groups who would like to push their moral agenda onto the rest of the Australian people, no one likes the idea.

The head of one of Australia's largest ISPs has labelled the Communications Minister the worst we've had in the past 15 years while political activists GetUp have raised over $30,000 in less than a day to support their fight against the filter.

Ed Coper, campaigns director at GetUp, said the response to the anti-censorship campaign had been "astronomical" and "quite unprecedented".

Almost 80,000 people have signed GetUp's petition and the organisation has created a widget that website owners can embed on their sites, which allows their visitors to sign the petition and obtain more information about the filtering plans.

Even children's welfare groups and NSW Young Labor has criticised the Government's filtering plans. Young Labor passed a motion rejecting the mandatory scheme and calling on Senator Conroy to adopt a voluntary opt-in system whereas Holly Doel-Mackaway, adviser with Save the Children, the largest independent children's rights agency in the world, said educating kids and parents was the way to empower young people to be safe internet users.

She said the filter scheme was "fundamentally flawed" because it failed to tackle the problem at the source and would inadvertently block legitimate resources.

So what does the Government do? Right, it tries to bully critics into silence, accuses them of supporting child pornography, and its pressing ahead with trials but doesn't give any information about the conditions surrounding them…