Cleansing out the Internet you would never see
The zealotry of Stephen Conroy condemned
"Conroy's filter proposal represents the greatest assault on free speech and an open society in the country's history. By its very nature, it is categorical and self-concealing, far beyond the sleazy and capricious "sedition" laws of the Howard government."
"... should mandatory filtering be introduced, the pages would be blocked for everyone. As would the pages telling you which pages had been blocked. And the pages telling you the pages that tell you the ... and so on, a repressive tower."
What's on this page?
Image: thanks to Iconoclast
According to many of their parents the Internet might be a scary place for kids, but the solution offered by the Rudd government through its Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Senator Stephen Conroy's proposed 'clean feed' internet filter goes much further than you perhaps would want, and too far, if you consider that even your file sharing or Skype phone calls may be blocked. Several experts, media commentators and free speech advocates have roundly condemned the proposals.
Through the voices of Guy Rundle and Helen Razer, as well as the chiefs of Telstra's Internet, Iinet and Internode, and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam a consensus develops, that Conroy shows zealotry and does not listen to the growing community concerns about Australia's Big Brother approach, where politicians shut down what you as well as the kids access, perhaps even representing the 'thin end of the wedge' in yet another area where policitians try to control your life.
External resource links:
Guy Rundle: there is no bigger issue than net censorship
Guy Rundle writes from London:
With the news that communications watchdog ACMA has put some pages of Wikileaks on its list of banned links -- and threatened linkers with five-figure daily fines -- the fight against the compulsory internet filtering enters a new and vital stage.
Wikileaks -- the document repository attached to Wikipedia -- has published the list of sites banned by the Danish government, and these pages have been put on the blacklist, presumably as part of a worldwide compact, formal or otherwise, between national web censorship authorities.
Of course, the ACMA decision doesn't affect many people at the moment, only sites hosted from Australia. But should mandatory filtering be introduced, the pages would be blocked for everyone. As would the pages telling you which pages had been blocked. And the pages telling you the pages that tell you the ... and so on, a repressive tower.
Such a move should make crystal clear to everyone, what has always been obvious to anyone paying attention -- that Conroy's filter proposal represents the greatest assault on free speech and an open society in the country's history. By its very nature, it is categorical and self-concealing, far beyond the sleazy and capricious "sedition" laws of the Howard government. For the left and the libertarian right it has to be recognised not only as an utter priority, but as the point on which a political realignment occurs.
For the left, this involves reminding oneself of the old rule -- vital right up to the 1970s -- that civil liberties and free speech campaigns have to take priority over any other, because they are the precondition of political activity. In the 1930s, this involved a long campaign against the "vagrancy" laws used by the police to prevent anti-eviction campaigners, among others, speaking at street corners.
Through the 1960s it involved a campaign to abolish Australia's shockingly comprehensive book and film censorship laws, kept in place by the "Liberal" party as a sop to the DLP. In the late 60s it included a general strike in Victoria, when tramways union leader Clarrie O'Shea was jailed (and as a result of the strike, released) on archaic anti-combination laws, and the process didn't stop until the full decriminalisation of homos-xuality in the 70s, 80s, and -- ! -- 90s.
Throughout that series of struggles, the ALP was -- more often than not -- on the side of a freer and more open society. It was, in that sense, Australia's liberal party. For everyone up to and including Keating, the modernisation of Australia manifested in making it a fairer, better society was equally expressed in the idea that ideas, debate and media should be as free as possible, and that each was a condition of the other.
Like New Labour in the UK, the ALP has now abandoned that, for a number of reasons. Once it committed itself to neoliberal economics ("social capitalism") Labo(u)r became freaked about the social dissolution and rupture, the desocialisation created by turning the polis into a giant market of winners and losers. The tough answer to this is genuine social democracy, in which people have a social being not entirely defined by whether they're a "winner" or a "loser". The easy answer is to let the market rip, allow it to change the culture, and then seek to control and reshape people's behaviour, selling it to them as "protecting the many against the few".
Politically, this also serves as a way of outflanking the Right on the law and order issue, with a distinctive centre-left twist. The Right can talk about "throwing away the key", "three strikes", etc, sounding increasingly olde-worlde, while Labour can offer filters, ASBOs, CCTVs and so on, portraying themselves as both cutting-edge, high-tech, and hardline. And any objection concerning an open society from within its own ranks can be dealt with by reference back to the way in which "rights stopped Labour achieving real change" -- high courts striking down tax laws etc etc.
The result -- a party committed to a timid shadow of social democracy, waging a foreign imperial war, and trialling a world-standard setting system of secret censorship is obviously a force that is neither progressive, nor politically liberal nor left in any sense of the terms, and which has jumped wholly across to a space on the reactionary right (some might argue it always was, save for the period between the 60s and 90s, but that's a historical discussion).
Thus, the most important act is twofold -- recognising the categorical primary importance of this issue, and the need for total separation from any remnant or sentimental attachment to the ALP regarding it.
In that respect -- and I apologise in advance to anyone who's been campaigning on this issue, irritated at getting lectured from London -- several concrete moves seem crucial:
I'm not suggesting one big group, with all the headaches that entails -- but I am suggesting that both a peak group which draws in the existing groups and connects them more explicitly to a free speech fight is pretty necessary, as is a more pointedly political action group, wholly focused on damaging the government for as long as it sticks to this idea.
Crucially that involves a moment of recognition from key activists -- no more than a dozen initially, would do it -- that this is an issue which demands they renounce their particular campaigns, and elevate this to a sole priority for a period of time. (For the record, your correspondent is involved in one of the groups feeding into CML, the Convention on Modern Liberty, the peak body formed last month in the UK).
That looks like a big ask, when such campaigns include the environment at a time when it is becoming visible to people that we are energetically undermining the basis of life on earth. But consider what can be banned if sites like Wikileaks are in the sights -- anything with back-of-a-truck commercial-in-confidence material, for example. Without anyone knowing they've been banned. Even the CIA redacts with a black texta, not a zippo. This is of another order entirely.
It is not despite the urgency of other (and contradictory) campaigns, but because of them that such a campaign has an absolute demand on attention -- in the same way as Vietnam, the Franklin Dam, or the Australia Card had at earlier times.
But that will depend not least on whether people on the left have the courage to make a final breach with the residual attachment to the ALP, and whether libertarians, as many have in the US, can overcome their distaste for collective action, especially with the left. That will largely depend on whether leading figures within each group see the situation in the same categorical and singular way as I do.
Crucially it involves experienced activists moving the campaign beyond the internet-focused action inevitably preferred by those in the net community, to a parallel and complementary strategy of visible leafleting, public meetings, civil disobedience, local government politics etc etc *.
I know there have been public demonstrations (quaint word), and maybe there are wall-to-wall public marches happening right now, and I'm exposing myself again, but I suspect not. One of the drawbacks of net campaigning/GetUp etc, is that it makes it easier to avoid the boring, embarrassing business of talking face-to-face with people -- because sending a GetUp email makes you not only feel you've done something, but in a 21st century hi-tech way too.
But there is no substitute for public, physical campaigning -- and the activists who know this, who I suspect will by temperament be more focused on other types of issues, need to recognise how many dimensions of struggle this campaign will need, and shoulder the wheel.
And now someone will tell me that the proposed filter won't be able to blacklist pages like Wikileaks, or whatever. But I won't believe them ... who would...?
* Which is not to say that the campaigning to date by EFA and others has not been substantial, and, no doubt, exhausting and thankless -- simply to suggest what more is needed.
ISP-level content filtering won't work
Brett Winterford and Julian Hill
The leaders of three of Australia's largest internet service providers -- Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett have, in video interviews with ZDNet.com.au over the past few months detailed technical, legal and ethical reasons why ISP-level filtering won't work.
Hackett, managing director of Adelaide-based ISP Internode, feels it is "somewhat loony" to make censorship the role of the ISP. "The reality is that we are just a gatekeeper," he said. "But we don't own the content, we only own the doorway."
A technical challenge
Hackett says that from a technical standpoint, introducing filtering is expensive, performance-degrading and annoying; "a complete bugger". Filtering technology, he says, is the "antithesis to the notion that we all want to go faster" on the internet. "This stuff will actually make things go slower," he says. "The tendency is to go towards a simple solution that actually overshoots, that has too many false negatives."
"Anything you are going to put in the end-to-end data path that actually does blocking can be invasive. It's invasive meaning it is expensive [to implement], and invasive in the sense that installing it in our network is complicated and may in fact cause outages."
"If the stuff goes a bit wrong it will start blocking other content. The trouble is, the internet's not just web browsers. Other applications that are using the internet may get mistaken for things that are pulling that content and might get blocked or messed with in strange ways."
Hackett expects the government to mandate a blacklist of IP addresses that by law an ISP is not permitted to serve to a customer. "Two problems with that -- one is collateral damage, what if that IP address is a virtual host with 2000 web sites on it and only one of them doesn't follow the government's morality?" he says. "The other [problem] is, what if it's done by mistake? [What] if the IP address is just straight out wrong?"
"Another obvious [problem] is that the internet is full of anonymous proxies. None of this stuff actually works."
A legal challenge
Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, says any decision that forces ISPs into a 'gatekeeping' role would have significant legal implications.
"The idea that ISPs could somehow or other filter the tnternet is one, technically impossible and two, a bad idea anyway," he says. "If you want to filter the bad guys out of the 'net, quite apart from the fact that technically you can't do it, you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation, to make that properly carried out, to make it stand up."
"Various successive governments have seized upon ISPs as being a convenient choke point or gatekeeper point on the 'net. They would love for ISPs to become judge, jury, policeman, posse, hangman, the whole deal. And I think it's a very inappropriate thing to do."
Milne says it should be the police, mandated by the law, that handle such issues, not ISPs. "ISPs all need to comply with the law, just as hotels or delicatessens or anybody who conducts commerce needs to comply with the law. [But] you don't want them inventing the law and you don't want them having to interpret the law. You want the guys who make the law to do that. Police need to be police."
Milne says Australia "probably doesn't have enough cyber-police" and is "probably not as good as we need to be at catching bad guys that use the 'net." Similarly, he feels Australia is 'underdone' in terms of laws that apply to the internet world.
But that said, he doesn't think it should be the role of the ISP to regulate internet use. "The idea of having some sort of fairly loose regulations and saying to ISPs, look, you have the capacity to do X, Y or Z and we'd like you to do that is crazy," he says. "If we start doing things like cutting people off on the basis of doing file-sharing, for example, we could finish up breaking laws. We could certainly lend ourselves liable to being sued for wrongfully cutting people off."
Milne says those parties in society that want ISP's to act as gatekeepers need first to have their plans mandated by courts. "The music industry would love to say, lets get the ISPs to catch all the people who are file sharing, write them a letter, and if they don't stop file sharing, cut them off," he says. "Well, we could do that, if there were a law [against file sharing]. But the music industry needs to get the law in place, and go through the whole process, and through the forensic examination society will undertake as to whether it's a good or bad idea."
"You need frameworks for these things. BigPond of course complies with all laws and if law enforcement agencies come to us with a warrant or a document which says I've been to court, and the court has decided that we've got reasonable grounds to believe this guy is a terrorist, for example, or a pedlar of child pornography or whatever it might be, and we want you to help us catch him, then we say, certainly sir, not a problem at all. We comply with the law, and we are protected by the law. Due process has happened."
Michael Malone, CEO of iiNet says even aside from the technical and legal problems associated with ISP-level filtering, "there is also the whole ethical position of how appropriate is it for the Australian Government to start acting like the Chinese Government."
"The question is how far the Government wants to go with [ISP-level filtering]," Malone says. The creation of a small blacklist or RC (refused classification) content, he suggests, might actually work, as filtering through a small list of IP addresses or URL's is viable.
"[But] taking that though to a comprehensive list that tries to make the internet 'safe'? I think there's two big problems with it. The definition of safe for a six-year-old is very different from that for a fifteen-year-old. The other [problem] is it's a very subjective assessment."
"If the Federal Government says we are going to stop certain sorts of objectionable content, what on earth is the definition of bad here?" asks Hackett. "Is it the Federal Government's definition of bad? Is this going to be a white Anglo-Saxon protestant filtering system? Is it going to be a Muslim filtering system? Is it going to be one that doesn't like Scientology? The problem is we live in a world with multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid."
"For some parents, they may consider information about homosexuality to be a real problem," says Malone. "But for some other parents they might consider that to be entirely appropriate. Nudity in art may be appropriate for one set of parents, not for another. Those things are household decisions."
A household decision
Both Hackett and Malone argue that such decisions do indeed belong in the home and not at the level of the utility. Hackett says there is no strong evidence that Australian families want filtering systems. "They want a sense that the internet is not a scarier place for their kids to be," he said. "But that's a question of solving it in other ways. Solving it with education, solving it with the pragmatic thing that we certainly do at home, we stick the kids' computer in the living room."
"Our position has always been, parents should have the ability to filter at their end," says Malone. "Client-end filtering works reasonably well, still doesn't provide you with an entirely safe environment, but at least it means the parent has some control over what the child is viewing. Try to do that at the ISP [level], and you're asking us to make decisions for the entire country."
A white-list at the client-end is the simplest, cheapest and most effective solution, Hackett says. Families give their children a white-listed version of the Internet, and add new sites and applications by exception upon their child's request.
"Apple already does a good job of this in Leopard -- its got a nice system whereby if you go to a web site that's not there [on the white list], the parents will log-in, authenticate and add that site on demand. And just incrementally keep adding until they stop asking. That stuff works -- and again you notice that's a client-side decision, that's not a network side decision."
The thin edge of the wedge?
Malone is concerned both of the last two Federal Government's posturing on 'making the internet safe' might be the first step in a path towards censorship.
"I do worry that this is the thin edge of the wedge," he said. "That the Government will come in with a small list of sites for the ISP to block, and that just includes the real stuff that everyone agrees on like child porn and bestiality. So we say, OK we are willing to comply with that. But it becomes an area then that can be used for so much more. So you might see the next step is an attempt to block out XXX sites or hate speech sites, and you think, OK maybe we can live with that [too]."
"But then after that it could be to block out competing political positions or to block out sites about religion or sexual orientation that the Government says is no longer suitable for children in Australia."
Helen Razer: Net filter smacks of Big Brother
Helen Razer is a Melbourne radio presenter and writer, an author of several books, a contributor to The Big Issue and a columnist for The Age.
At the end of 2007, Senator Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, answered critics of his proposed internet filter by saying: "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."
From the start of his role to the present, Conroy has answered critics of this scheme only with pious conceit. Question the principles of a filtering initiative that could offer Australians the sort of internet experience currently enjoyed in China, and you'll get, at best, a mulish reply. At worst, you'll be charged with a partiality to child pornography.
Notwithstanding this potential for disgrace, critics have emerged in recent days to quiz Conroy following the Senator's own embarrassment after a "blacklist" of web addresses compiled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) was leaked to the prominent whistle-blower website Wikileaks. Although Conroy claimed the list was a fake, he did concede that some of the content matched the ACMA document.
According to the Minister, we remain ignorant of the ACMA blacklist. The "fake" included links to online poker sites, garden-variety smut and, most perversely, a Queensland dentist. Conroy had no comment regarding the depravity of root canal work. He warned that any individual involved in the distribution of this material would face criminal prosecution. Naturally, he also expressed his hope that someone might think of the children.
The hitherto secret ACMA list forms part of the Federal Government's Cyber Safety plan. Since 2000, it has been available to purveyors of net-filtering software including the gratis NetAlert package initiated by former prime minister John Howard and abandoned by Kevin Rudd. An opt-in application such as NetAlert allowed the home user to dodge that content deemed unsuitable by ACMA.
The problem with net filters, however, is that they tend to be a little inelegant. An associate of mine, for example, insists that a net nanny program refused her access to the Siemens AG website where she hoped to find instructions for her home security system. As she was able to disable her kid-friendly filter, the hurdle proved little more than a droll bother. If our home censors seem hamfisted, we are currently able to unlock them. What Conroy is proposing is to throw away the key.
Internet Service Providers, those organisations you pay for your connectivity, will have a mandatory filter. Fans of filtration argue that we have no business viewing items, whatever they might be, on the ACMA blacklist. Libertarians argue that what we don't know may, in fact, hurt us. It is not only child pornography that is on the blacklist. Last November, Conroy announced that the blacklist would serve to filter child pornography and "other unwanted content".
Naturally, smutty people, including myself, are aghast at interpretations of Conroy's statement. It seems likely that it is not only access to unrated sites that will be blocked. X-Rated, R18+ and local MA15+ sites are likely to be banned. Advocates such as Electronic Frontiers Australia understand that even minimally racy websites will be unavailable to the bored and wayward. This debate, however, can only be diminished by the complaint of porn hobbyists. And despite the best efforts of free-speech activists, Conroy's answer remains static. Viz: Won't someone think of the children.
The most credible objection to the Clean Feed emerges from the IT profession. Ask any qualified geek about the proposed initiative and they'll affirm that it just can't work. From the election promise of a family-friendly internet, it seems that Conroy's ambition has grown. Far from his initial plan of blocking the availability of blacklisted websites, he now aims to stifle peer-to-peer technologies.
Of his Clean Feed trial, Conroy said last December: "Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial."
If you've roughly the same understanding of virtual community as my mum, here's a crib: peer-to-peer, more or less, refers to those means of online communication that do not form part of the World Wide Web. These might include torrent sites (again, for my mum's friends: think of it as email on very powerful steroids) or messenger services. So great is Conroy's fear that unseemly files might be exchanged, he seems prepared to impede my access to my mother on Skype -- which is terribly annoying as it took me six months to show her how to use the damn thing.
Don't even try to argue with Conroy about his Clean Feed. When it comes to debate on internet safety, he appears every bit as flexible as an evangelical toothpick.
Scott Ludlam: Could The Clean Feed Bypass Parliament?
Scott Ludlam is a Greens Senator for Western Australia, a former Parliamentary staffer and a long-standing anti-nuclear activist.
17 Mar 2009
There seems to be no way through the Senate for the Government's unpopular internet filter. But could they bypass Parliament completely? Scott Ludlam looks at their options.
In order to impose its controversial internet filter, the Government has the choice of trying to pass new laws through a hostile Senate, or working with existing laws, which would mean negotiating its way around a legal minefield and a highly sceptical internet industry.
Right now, many people are curious to know whether the Government could bypass Parliament in this way to introduce mandatory net filtering by some other means.
If they choose to bypass Parliament, it could go something like this. Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act sets out default rules which govern the actions of internet services providers (ISPs) when no industry code is in operation. Under these default rules, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has the power to issue a standard prevention notice requiring ISPs to take reasonable steps to prevent end users from accessing prohibited content. The standard prevention notice could potentially be used to enforce the filter, but in order for the Government to use these default rules, a number of stars would need to be perfectly aligned.
Firstly, ACMA would need to deregister the existing industry code, and it is not at all clear that ACMA has the legal authority to do this.
Secondly, even if the existing industry code could be set aside and the default rules came into effect, it could be argued that as an ACMA prevention notice is being given to all ISPs, it's a legislative instrument and therefore it could be disallowed by Parliament.
Thirdly, under the default rules, the standard prevention notices must be "reasonable". Reasonableness is determined by considering a number of factors, including whether the notice is technically and commercially feasible, and whether it is in the public interest and accommodating towards technological change, as well as considering how it affects social needs and the provision of services. Even if the Government does go down the path of encouraging ACMA to enforce its filter using the default rules, it seems inevitable the decision would be subject to legal challenge on the basis of any one of the above factors.
Alternatively, the Government could indirectly implement its filter by seeking court orders to block content. This again seems like a highly unlikely scenario. In order for such an approach to be successful, the Government would need new legislation in place to both prohibit the offending conduct and impose a relevant injunction. It's unlikely that the current laws would be enough for the plan to work since it would be difficult to argue that the current legal framework mandates ISPs to filter content in the way the Government has proposed.
That just leaves Parliament as the Government's other option. With the Greens, the Coalition and Senator Xenophon yet to be convinced -- and the Government still on the losing side of the community debate -- that's not looking very hopeful either.
It is not at all clear where the Government is going with this thing -- the trial is beset with problems, organisations from Choice magazine to Save the Children and Reporters Without Borders have condemned it, and the blogsphere still teems with scornful, well informed dissent.
The Minister has still offered nothing by way of justification except that net censorship was ALP policy in 2007. This kind of glib deflection does nothing to inspire confidence: with stakes this high we can only hope the Government has seen the writing on the wall and is quietly rethinking the whole idea.
Scott Ludlam will be speaking at newmatilda.com's forum in Brisbane on Tuesday 24 March, The Tangled Web: Beyond an Internet Filter. This is the first of a national series of forums on internet regulation presented by newmatilda.com. You can reserve a seat and find out more details here.