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.

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Microsoft pans top-down content filtering

It is disappointing to read that the Rudd Government’s practically universally criticised Internet content filtering plan is slowly trundling onwards. Some controlled testing of ISP-level content filtering is reportedly set to take place in Tasmania, with tests scheduled to complete in July 2008. This is despite the ACMA’s own advice that filtering social networking sites (and indeed, blogs) is likely to prove a challenge for any content filtering system, and that education is likely a better method for modulating access to questionable material.

If the government needed any more persuading that its internet content filtering plan needs to be buried in a hurry, it doesn’t need to look much further than this story from Mark Sweney in The Guardian today. Matt Lambert, Microsoft’s Head of Corporate Affairs, had this to say about top-down online content filtering such as the scheme being progressed by Federal Labor:

But Lambert rejected the idea of a mandatory setting of content filters to a high security level, arguing that it would block too much content that posed no risk to children.Lambert said a better solution would be for parents to be better educated about what their children are looking at online and what content filters are available.

“Setting [filtering controls] at a high level is the equivalent to blocking the internet … it would be living in the dark ages in my view.” 

I would be interested to know just how many dollars are being wasted pursuing this sensationalist, curiously backward initiative each day. If the Federal Opposition are looking for a dud policy from Labor to score some easy points on, it is quite unlikely to find one more useful than this. The whole concept seems to only continue to survive on the scent of an oily rag; namely pandering to social conservatives who wouldn’t know what the Internet was if it bit them on the arse. Or what top-down content filtering really means until they can’t find websites describing certain anatomical body parts or “swear words” without calling Telstra and having the rest of the Internet turned back on.

Different people will want different levels of restrictions on content, and the government’s universalist approach on this issue is bound to please just about nobody. Some will be upset that the content filtering does not go far enough. Some will be upset that it goes too far. The numbers of people who are happy with what content is being filtered out are likely to be quite small at the end of the day.