Please Senator Conroy, make it stop…

Asher Moses had a good report in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of days confirming to everyone what most of us have already realised; Federal Labor’s policy on ISP-level internet content filtering is in desperate need of abolition. Lots of questions remain unanswered at this stage, almost a year after Federal Labor took office. One would expect that at least some of these will be “answered” with respect to the results of the live testing that the government hopes to conduct shortly.

Here’s a list of just a few of the serious points that I think the government really needs to think about in relation to this policy:

1) Asher Moses suggests in his article that the proposed filtering would be unable to block content transferred through peer-to-peer file sharing networks. How will the Rudd Government work around this fairly fundamental problem?

2) What is the process for flagging internet content as “illegal”? What lag time can we expect between the time a site appears on the internet and the time that it is black listed?

3) What controls will be in place for determining whether a particular site or web page is considered worthy to be black listed? Can we expect, for example, that the online work of Bill Henson would be blacklisted?

4) Many search engines provide image search technology. How will the service enforced by the Rudd Government here prevent image searches from turning up dubious results? What constitutes a “clean” image file, and is technically feasible to accurately determine this on a real-time basis?

5) Is it really worthwhile to reduce the performance of the Internet for everyone just in order to block what realistically is a handful of sites in the greater scheme of things online? Have the costs of the resulting efficiency losses for Australian business been roughly quantified at this stage, given that every action on the Internet will effectively pass through a filtering layer?

Over the fold is an entertaining exchange from a recent estimates hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts, which offers some insight into the sorts of problems that Senator Conroy needs to deal with.

I am not sure if this blog fits into the “wild and enthusiastic” category of blogs that Senator Conroy alludes to in the exchange, but he is of course kidding himself if he thinks there are not enormous (in my view – intractable) problems blocking the successful implementation of this scheme as intended.

Senator LUDLAM —I suppose I would put to you that there is a big difference between category of site and category of content. Sites can host all sorts of things. One example that has been put to me, for example, is somebody posting an article on a controversial topic on a website and someone then leaves a comment on that website and neither the ISP nor the person who posted the original article has any control over the kinds of comments that might be added. What are the odds that the filtering software in that case is going to start knocking out content inadvertently and start returning fairly serious false positives?

Senator CONROY —Underblocking and overblocking are obviously issues. That is why we are engaged in conversation with the sector about it—to specifically try to minimise this sort of impact.

Senator LUDLAM —So what are your benchmarks or what is acceptable?

Senator CONROY —We are just at the very early stages. You are actually jumping ahead. I can understand that if you have been reading some of the wild and—

Senator LUDLAM —Some of it is not so wild, Minister.

Senator CONROY —enthusiastic commentary that I keep seeing both in blogs and in the media. But we are actually only in the early stages and we have committed to consult with the sector to work through these very issues. We have not set some of those benchmarks. What we are seeing is what is the impact, but we have not said, ‘Right, three per cent is acceptable and seven per cent is not acceptable.’ We actually have not done that.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay, so there are no benchmarks yet. Are there any countries around the world where this has been tried, where this is actually being attempted?

Senator LUDLAM —Of those countries that you have named, I am not expecting that they are all identical in form, because I understand that your proposal is not opt in or opt out. It will be mandatory content blocking across all Australian ISPs.

Senator CONROY —We are—

Senator LUDLAM —Just let me finish. In terms of the countries that you have just listed for me, it is mandatory or is it an opt-in system that, for example, concerned parents could take advantage of?

Senator CONROY —Illegal material is illegal material. Child pornography is child pornography. I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography.

Senator LUDLAM —No. That is why I was interested in asking about the law enforcement side of it as well.

Senator CONROY —No, we are working both angles at it. We are just trying to use technology to enforce the existing laws.

Senator LUDLAM —I am just wondering if I can put these questions to you without being accused of being pro child pornography. That would assist.

Senator CONROY —I was wondering if I could get the questions without being accused of being the Great Wall of China.

5 thoughts on “Please Senator Conroy, make it stop…

  1. It’s worth looking at the same committee’s inquiry into the Content Filtering (2007) bill. Conroy was co-author of the dissenting report that accused the then government of being overly hasty and not providing for enough debate or time for the industry and citizens to comment on filtering, nor for senators to read submissions.

  2. Pingback: Good news for the ABC and SBS | Guy Beres

  3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7696356.stm This BBC article talks about how

    “Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have signed a global code of conduct promising to offer better protection for online free speech and against official intrusion.

    The Global Network Initiative follows criticism that companies were assisting governments in countries like China to censor the Internet. ”

    Sounds like they should have included Australia on that list.

  4. Yep, by the sounds of this proposal. And if the proposal can’t be relatively easily circumvented by those who really want to push stuff like child pornography out there, I’ll eat my hat.

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