Over the jump is the letter itself – but I would also recommend checking out the Electronic Frontiers Australia briefing on the issue.
As a constituent in your electorate I am writing to you with regards your party’s proposal to introduce ISP level filtering of internet traffic.
I am very concerned about Senator Conroy’s approach to this matter, which effectively ignores the advice of his own department and which is impractical and, I believe, unethical.
This proposal, if implemented, would see Australia with a stronger internet censorship regime than any other democracy – more in line with repressive regimes such as Iran, in fact.
I would like to outline my objections to the proposal.
All expert advice on this matter, including the advice of Senator Conroy’s own department, indicates that implementing a filtering scheme as broad as that proposed would significantly impact broadband performance.
Australia already lags behind other developed nations in broadband speed and the impact on such a filter would significantly impact our international competitiveness, especially for industries that are heavily reliant on internet communications.
Not only that, but filtering mechanisms are shown to have significant “false-positives”, meaning that a significant proportion of sites would be incorrectly blocked by the filter, further impacting Australian internet users and potentially businesses.
A briefing by Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) also demonstrates how impractical classification of content would be given the inclusion of R18+ material that is hosted offshore in the filter plans, requiring an estimated 1000 people for a full year to classify the proportion of sites that would fit this category.
As highlighted by members of the internet industry, web pages (which ostensibly is what the plan covers) are just one form of online communication, and the addition of such a filter may adversely impact these other services.
Additionally, the filtering mechanisms are ineffective in achieving their stated objective – that is the protection of minors from “inappropriate” content, and blocking of “illegal” material.
There are widely publicised methods for bypassing such filters and the previous Government’s experience should be a warning – with school children taking less than 30 mins to bypass filtering efforts.
In effect, the Government’s spending on such a scheme would be wasted. In this regard I agree with the EFA’s suggestion that perhaps Government spending would be more appropriate in other areas.
Ultimately any filtering mechanism will contain significant holes and is no substitute for proper parental guidance.
Currently the ACMA blacklist for illegal sites is not public. Senator Conroy has not answered numerous questions both in parliament and from the press about what would be considered “inappropriate” material.
If the plan was to include R18+ information, as has been suggested and reported, this would include information on “issues such as suicide, crime, corruption, marital problems, emotional trauma, drug and alcohol dependency, death and serious illness, racism, religious issues” (OFLC Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Videotapes and Internet Content, issued September 2000).
In fact, a review of classification activity up to 2000 indicates that, in fact, a majority of R18+ material falls under categories other than “Sex” and “Violence” which are more typically associated with this rating, and for which the filter is primarily proposed.
As an advocate for LGBT rights yourself, I hope you can appreciate how information pertaining to this topics may also be captured by such a classification system – if not under this Government, under future, less progressive, Governments.
Obviously such information could be of potential benefit to minors (i.e. teenagers wanting to understand their sexuality). It is also unclear whose moral values will be represented in the Australian Communication and Media Authority’s (ACMA) classification – clearly different households and cultures have differing views on such matters, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the State to adequately regulate and classify such material.
Lastly, in what I consider to be overzealous legislative responses to the threat of terrorism, the previous Government introduced legislation relating to acts of sedition that could easily be construed to be encompassed by this plan. This, combined with Senator Conroy’s vague references to “inappropriate” material, without clear definition, is deeply concerning to me. The mere possibility of such a filter being used to stifle freedom of expression is a significant risk that can’t be taken lightly.
If the plan is to go ahead, it is my view that a minimum requirement that the Government make available the list of blocked sites for public scrutiny under Freedom of Information laws, and a clear framework for contesting ACMA decisions be put in place that do not adversely impact individual claimants (i.e. that don’t have prohibitive costs through legal action).
Inappropriate state intervention
As argued earlier, the State is not in a position to regulate or classify adequately to encompass the many different views and value systems that make up our wonderfully diverse country.
It is my view that it is a household/parental judgment as to whether content is inappropriate for themselves or their children. Parental guidance is essential, even with such a filtering mechanism, to protect our children. This responsibility should not, and cannot, be abrogated to the State.
Considering my situation more directly: as an online practitioner, I use online communications forums more than I do the phone to conduct my business, including a variety of community-driven/managed websites that may be affected by this filter. It’s not a stretch to view this filtering mechanism as something akin to wiretapping my phone.
Once such a filter is in place, it is a slippery slope towards filtering and/or monitoring of other internet communications, that in any other medium would require legal approval first.
I believe that the existing system of opt-in filtering at the level of the home or individual business is the appropriate response to the issues that this plan claims to address – which is the existing system.
The ACMA “kidsonline@home Internet use in Australian homes” report highlights that a majority of parents that don’t use filtering are still aware of the risks to their children, and are taking measures that they feel are appropriate to protect their children. It is a myth that parents aren’t taking advantage of the current freely available filtering software due to lack of education or technophobia.
That said, I would welcome further investment in improved individual filtering software and education, as well as funding to improve cyber-crime prevention in the areas of child pornography and predatory behaviour.
In conclusion, I would like to recommend some further resources that may be of interest to you in further exploring this matter:
- The Electronic Frontiers Australia briefing on the issue
- Wikipedia entry on Internet censorship in Australia, including links to further resources and provides some insight into the international perspective of these moves
- Fellow online consultant Stephen Collins summarises his thoughts, with pointers to other worthwhile contributions online.