Does Conroy's FUD make a Ludd of Rudd?

Summary:Pretty soon, the government will be screening and filtering our email as well as making blogs like this one disappear.

Senator Stephen Conroy's twice-removed predecessor, Richard Alston, gained the nickname "the world's biggest Luddite" for, among other reasons, his belief that broadband was mainly for pornography and gambling (cf this illuminating 2002 ABC interview).

Pretty soon, the government will be screening and filtering our email as well as making blogs like this one disappear.

It appears modern-day users are finding their own choice nicknames for Conroy and Rudd, who is looking rather like a Luddite after working to swaddle Australians in cotton wool and amniotic fluid by filtering all of our internet access.

Last week Mia Garlick — assistant secretary for the Digital Economy branch of Conroy's Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and one of the people responsible for vetting the minister's recent blogging joint venture with Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner — spoke at a Communications Alliance conference on the future of broadband and struggled to find a diplomatic way to describe the feedback.

"We got over 2,400 comments," Garlick said of the blog, which was posted to solicit feedback for the government's Future Directions Paper for the Digital Economy, but became a sounding board for Australians' rejection of the filtering scheme. "Many were about [web] filtering," she elaborated. "Quite a phenomenal amount, actually."

Asked whether the off-topic abuse Conroy copped would rule out similar experiments in the future, Garlick was cautiously optimistic. "I think a lot of people were worried that the force of the comments directed at the other topic [filtering] would dissuade us from doing it again," she said, "but I think we did get some valuable lessons from it. Most people seemed to think it was a good way — more informal and transparent — for the government to communicate."

If the blog was transparent, Rudd and Conroy's Australia filter is anything but. Signalling a huge shift in conventional thinking about the role of ISPs — and promising to turn Australia into a digital pariah on the world stage — the filter program took a frightening turn for the worst last week when it was announced that six relatively small ISPs — Primus Telecommunications, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1 — would participate in six-week "live" filtering tests.

Starting small will give the government base data to work from, as it seeks to refute widely-held fears that the filters will slow Australia's internet access (which seems to be a foregone conclusion). Customers can opt in for now, although I'll be curious to know how many will actually do it; I bet the number will be far lower than signed up for NetAlert, the Howard Government's ex-online safety initiative that was unceremoniously axed on 31 December after the Rudd Government's now-incredibly-ironic-and-pointless budget cuts early last year.

I know Rudd has an enthusiastic rapport with China, but it's the last internet model Rudd would want to emulate.

With NetAlert nobbled and the Great Firewall of Australia still in its infancy, Australians now have exactly no government-supported way to protect their children from online nastiness — at least not with technology. No, it looks like parents will have to rely on good old-fashioned supervision to protect their kids, at least until the Good Minister has hit the jackpot and this pointless filter goes live.

I think it's fair to assume that most Australians don't want it (feel free to correct me below if you disagree). However, having axed NetAlert, Conroy has painted himself into a corner. Lacking alternatives, he simply cannot cede to the vociferous masses and back down on the filter unless — and many feel he's hanging out for this escape route to present itself — it proves technically impossible and he can shelve the plans whilst saving face.

The whole thing seems a bit churlish, and I wonder whether Conroy and Rudd are fully considering the implications of such broad censorship. After all, if you really are judged by the company you keep, Australia's internet policy will rightly be placed in a bucket with that of countries like Iran and China, whose legendary net censorship predilections were reinforced with the recent discovery that the government is actively monitoring and filtering instant message conversations sent via Skype.

China's government recently came out to say that it's all to protect the children, although I suspect the children would be far better off if their parents stopped getting jailed for alleged thoughtcrimes that would be shrugged off in most Western countries. This sort of behaviour — and filtering of communications — is simply not compatible with the ideals of democracy and freedom that Australia, like so many countries, loudly champions.

I know Rudd has an enthusiastic rapport with China, but it's the last internet model Rudd would want to emulate. Indeed, in a modern democracy like America — where freedom of speech is sacrosanct thanks to England's authoritarian colonial rule — a proposal like this would have been laughed out of the House and Conroy ridden out on a rail by his own electorate. Australians do not have an explicit legal right to freedom of speech or expression, although hundreds-strong protests suggest that many people believe we should.

Senator Conroy has couched this debate in terms of stopping child pornography. While nobody wants this filth on the internet — heck, my suggested punishment for its perpetrators involves a small room, handcuffs, a big jar of honey and a randy Grizzly bear — there are already a host of laws punishing such behaviour. Ditto copyright infringement, which is also on the agenda as Conroy tries to throttle the internet and wash it clean.

Conroy's magnum opus, systematically implemented against the will of many, is already making Australia a global laughing stock

Anti-censorship activists often talk of the "slippery slope" towards more widespread censorship. As putative champions of transparent government, it's frankly terrifying that Labor seems determined to keep the mechanisms of its web censorship regime secret; secrecy breeds suspicion, especially in cases like this. Pretty soon, the government will be screening and filtering our email as well as making blogs like this one disappear.

In the short term, the biggest question about the filters is not whether they work (they do), or whether people want them (they don't); it is, simply put, whether governments should be able to use telecommunications providers as instruments of censorship or — as seems to be the accepted standard in countries where net neutrality is actually taken seriously — whether telcos should just move the bits and let other people worry about what they can be reconstructed into.

Just as civil works companies can't be held responsible for building roads used by terrorists, or Energy Australia charged as an accessory for supplying electricity used to manufacture amphetamines, it seems ludicrous to force ISPs into this role simply to fill short-sighted political agendas. Conroy's magnum opus, systematically implemented against the will of many, is already making Australia a global laughing stock and attracting the attention of human rights campaigners, which is not attention that Australia wants or needs.

Ned Ludd led an uprising of textile workers who were worried technology would replace them; ultimately, it did (as a curious aside, many were sent to Australia as punishment). And just as Ned Ludd's anti-technology movement failed, the internet world will ultimately move on with or without us. Conroy may clean up Australia's internet but being left behind, socially and technologically, seems far worse indeed.

Since Conroy's filter has already copped loads of ridicule, I'm interested to hear from people who think it is a good idea. Are there cogent arguments in its favour? Hype aside, what are the real risks? Bonus points if you can spot why this blog might be an inadvertent casualty of the Great Firewall of Australia.

Topics: Broadband, Browser, Censorship, Government : AU, NBN, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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