I would be the first person to say that child exploitation is an abhorrent practice which needs to be stopped. The criminals and perverts who peddle child pornography should be locked away where they can be exploited themselves. Unfortunately as technology has evolved, these predators have turned to the Internet to peddle their pedophilia, so we as a society have a responsibility to do something about this.
Enter The Honorable Stephen Conroy Senator, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Before I continue let me say that I am not a fanatical zealot with regards to Senator Conroy. I fervently disagree with his censorship policy for many reasons but I believe he should be lauded for his efforts to break the vertical integration and monopolisation of Telstra, possibly the worst privatisation in Australian history short of Quantas, the discussion of which I’ll leave for another time. Please read what I am writing with an open mind and take my arguments on their merits.
So Senator Conroy has been assigned this portfolio from his strengths as a politician but like many of his colleagues he is not an expert in the field he is required as Minister to govern, influence and develop. He has put forward a platform in good faith which in his view should deal with several problems including child pornography, which is a filter for all Refused Classification (RC) material on Australia’s Internet which isn’t (legally) able to be bypassed. Indeed many people see the Internet as websites and nothing else. Sadly this is not the case, with many technologies available to communicate with over the internet and several ways to subvert any techniques of filtering.
My first point of concern with this filter is the fact that technology exists today to exchange information over the Internet today which do not use URLs (a URL is the web address like www.google.com) at all, and allow IP addresses (this is akin to your computer’s telephone number on the internet) to change randomly. Other filtering technologies can be implemented by criminals to prevent access to their illicit content by non-members which will significantly hamper any attempts at detection by government agencies. If a piece of content isn’t advertised or visible except to members of the criminal organisation, how can its address be entered into the filter? One ramification of this is that legitimate activities or business could be affected by dynamic addresses being blocked by the filter causing seemingly random Internet problems all due to the implementation of the filter.
Commonly used sharing technologies such as BitTorrent, Gnutella and many other peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies can privately share information without the use of URLs today. Indeed the current public version of BitTorrent allows for both randomisation of port and the encryption of all traffic. Not even ASIO or DSD, let alone the AFP or state police forces have the ability to deep packet inspect and decrypt every packet coming through Australia’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Combine this with the ability to create remote and encrypted virtual private networks outside of the country means that anyone who wants to bypass the filter can do so trivially within seconds (I’d like to quote the date of 31/12/09 here as when I wrote this it wasn’t illegal to state this information.) If you aren’t technically minded I’m sure that sounded like gibberish so in laymen’s terms there is no point locking the door when the windows and screen are wide open.
As a law-abiding citizen of Australia my primary opposition to this filter stems from the censorship concerns. There is exactly zero meaningful oversight provided to the maintenance of this list. There should be police or government investigation of suspected websites and a federal judge or magistrate should be the only person able to update the list, with published cases regarding which sites are banned and why. Furthermore a legal appeal process must exist within the federal courts to remove entries from the list. Even with this minimum requirement in place though I believe that having the filter available sets a very dangerous precedent for freedom of information and government control in Australia.
If this filter is allowed to be put in place, then my children and their children could be walking a very slippery slope regarding freedoms that I take for granted today such as the ability to criticise the government or hold them accountable for their actions. If we are to filter RC content from the internet then shouldn’t we filter all RC content from all forms of media, and why not telephone conversations too while we’re at it? What if we just expand the filter’s terms to include anyone who has a different opinion to the government, because it certainly would be easier to run the country if you could just get rid of that pesky opposition? Censorship is not something we should allow to happen in Australia, we all have a responsibility in a democracy to ensure that we protect our freedoms, because they are the only thing between us and an overbearing government controlling everything that we do.
The technical implementation of the filter is flawed and easily subverted and still requires the same investigation as previously required to locate the content in the first place. There is no independent oversight provided to the notification, addition and removal of content from the blacklist as well as having no appeals process. Social ramifications of government censorship are well understood, leading to a very clear and right moral opposition to this filter. Finally and most importantly, this filter will do nothing to stop the producers of child pornography or RC material as it is easily subverted by those who wish to, but it will impact every Australian detrimentally now and into the future. In conclusion the internet filtering policy is a lose / lose proposition based upon the stated goals and full impact of its application, which begs the question as to why is it being implemented? This leaves every Australian with no choice but to exercise their power at the ballot box if the current government continues with this policy, assuming that enough people understand what is at stake.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a colleague of mine who stated this more succinctly than I ever could: “You are free or you are not. There is no middle ground.”
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