Does Conroy's FUD make a Ludd of Rudd?

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.

SHARE:

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, Telcos, NBN

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

29 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • National security maybe?

    There had been interesting research on how terrorist groups like Al Qaeda could use JPEG files to transmit secretly coded messages: http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/08/researchers-ana.html


    Now suppose the government suddenly realized its potential for its own uses. In that case this filter may have nothing to do with child porn and such (although it is a bonus for getting that conservative Christian vote). It is to allow Mr. Conroy to pass his little coded messages embedded in his photos which he then posts on his blog.


    All that talk of 'protecting our children' and such cow turd could merely a smoke screen... just like Kevin 07.


    I'm also sorry to say that Mr. Conroy is a doubleplus-good for nothing ICT minister based on a KPI index.
    anonymous
  • luddite fluddite badthink

    I suspect the randy grizzly bear is enough to trigger the great filterwall. You couldn't be righter Conroy is a newoldthink nincompoop.
    anonymous
  • Support

    David, you 1/2 sum the majority of this debate up with the comment ;

    "No, it looks like parents will have to rely on good old-fashioned supervision to protect their kids ..."

    This is a given to most parents concerned about their childrens welfare, but parental supervision combined with a PC filter (to set the percieved boundaries to the children, and possibly prevent the inadvertent click through to undesirable content), this therefore doesnt mean they currently have no technological answer (as you state) on the PC front, they can also purchase an approved filter, see your Australian Internet Industry Associations Website and their family friendly filter program! please consider applications and industry schemes such as these before emotionally reacting, balanced and informed commentary on the subject from a journalist would be well recieved.

    Our perspective overseas reading the news, and blogs, it seems that Australians are overreacting because they currently have no option for ISP filtering, providing there is an opt-out, or opt-in mechanism which it appears widely reported there will be then honestly what is the problem in a service such as this? possible technical issues aside (which it appears the current experiment there is aiming to identify) there is a choice just because the service providers are mandated to offer it is not cause for mass hysteria.
    anonymous
  • Opt-in opt-out

    Would be great indeed but the filtering Conroy is talking about in the long term will be mandatory for all ISPs -- not opt-in, opt-out. It is only the initial trial that will be opt-in, as the participating ISPs come to grips with the technology and the efficacy of the government's secret filtering list.

    I am certainly aware there are many solutions parents can get to add filters on their own PCs and this would seem to be an ideal solution; my point is that it seems silly for Conroy to state that the government's objective is to protect children, then axe a perfectly fine government-funded project to help them do that in favour of what is, so far, nothing.

    In the meantime, however, you are right - parents do need to be extra vigilant, both technologically and in simply being smart about what their kids are doing online.

    I'm sure everyone here would welcome some relevant links to preferred filtering solutions or services they have found effective -- suggestions anyone?
    anonymous
  • Re: Support

    But the problem is there should be better things to do than planning this filter business - We are facing a global recession here, the industries are shrinking, the NBN seems uncertain, and one might even associate new ICT spending with new green technologies given all the fuss re: global warming.


    So it's not so much overreacting to the filter idea but more frustration over Senator Conroy's lack of focus on the big picture. The least he could do is acknowledge and address them.
    anonymous
  • Hype aside, what are the real risks?

    If the Federal Police are investigating a child porn ring run via websites, does the Government block it and alert all Australian members that the Gov is on to them, allowing them to destroy evidence or flee? Or is it left working during the investigation, with the Government knowingly allowing child pornography over a supposedly 'clean feed'?

    Obviously it is far more important to find the offenders who are actually abusing children, but then how can the content be blocked without interfering with Police investigations?
    anonymous
  • Child Protection

    If the filter was solely there to protect against the abuse of children and it had an opt-in opt-out option then I would be all for it.
    The issue is it's mandatory, has extended beyond child explotation (ie. filtering general pornographic and political sites), and is unregulated on how sites are added.
    I don't think anyone here would be against protecting against the abuse of children, but that seems to now be a very minor thing that the filter is destined to be used for.
    anonymous
  • ACMA blacklist is way too broad

    From reading Senator Conroy's comments on his AustralianIT blog, he tries to allay fears about violations of free speech by saying " The Government has no plans to extend the definition of prohibited material". But this does not help his argument because the specifications for the list are so broad (see http://www.acma.gov.au/WEB/STANDARD/pc=INT_IND_CONTENT_ABOUT).

    It is staggering to think how many websites fall under ACMA's definition of prohibited and are just a complaint away from being added to the blacklist. And this is going to be mandatory? It boggles the mind.
    anonymous
  • No idea

    Couldn't use your name Anonymous? Webshield for one does ISP filtering.

    The idea behind the filter is a black list which will not have an OPT OUT and a secondary Adult list which people will have to OPT OUT of if they don't want to be in it.

    At the end of the day it is still Censorship, guess most people take freedom for granted. People trust their governments far too much
    anonymous
  • Wrong, wrong wrong

    @ anonymous

    You said:

    "Our perspective overseas reading the news, and blogs, it seems that Australians are overreacting because they currently have no option for ISP filtering, providing there is an opt-out, or opt-in mechanism which it appears widely reported there will be then honestly what is the problem in a service such as this?"

    Two points:

    1. There are many ISPs that already offer an optional free filtered feed. There are also ISPs that offer only a filtered feed. Using these is the choice of the customer and most choose not to use them. There was also the govt sponsored and free NetAlert scheme that Conroy dropped at the end of last year leaving the 2,000 families that depended on it in the doo-doo. That number - 2,000 - is the level of public demand for Internet censorship in Aus.

    2. There is no opt-in for this scheme, it's mandatory. Your feed will be censored and the only choice is by what degree it's censored. That is the problem and when you understand that then you will understand why so many people are so angry.
    anonymous
  • Shut the sites down?

    If the government has a list of supposed child porn sites it wants to filter, why on earth aren't the AFP and Interpol out shutting them down and arresting people??
    Child pornography is illegal everywhere on the planet I believe?
    Oh, I know, maybe there's another agenda the government has.
    anonymous
  • RE: Hype aside, what are the real risks?

    The filter would likely already be affecting AFP who are really doing something about CP, the governmet took 2.5 million or so off them, while they were in need of more manpower.
    The other point is make things harder, the real criminals go deeper, and are harder to catch.
    The irony of the whole protect the children stance that conroy has been chanting, is that any CP doesn't generally travel via http, it travels most likely via p2p, it doesn't stop chidren being abused in the first place and any CP that rarely is hosted on open http can be quickly rectified by complaining to interpol (my wife got a link in yahoo chat 10 or so years ago to a CP site) she alerted me, we contacted interpol, site was gone within the hour.
    anonymous
  • Blacklist will be published

    Here's a risk for you:

    The Finnish blacklist was reverse engineered using the "oracle" method documented by Richard Clayton here:
    http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-653.html in section 7.6.2

    This method can be used on any "hybrid" 2-stage system (like the ones proposed for Australia), and it enables any customer of a filtering ISP to determine the contents of the blacklist without the ISP's consent or knowledge. ISPs can erect countermeasures, but the countermeasures can themselves be attacked, and with a mandatory system you only need one ISP nation-wide to erect them ineffectively to cause the blacklist to be available to all.

    This attack will be enabled by the "live trials" starting... when? The Govt hasn't said, Conroy's still locked away refusing to comment on that one. But nevertheless, when they do start, the list which the Government claims must be kept secret will be available to sufficiently determined customers of trial ISPs.

    Hey, Conroy: Do you think any customers might be determined to sabotage the testing?

    Does anyone seriously expect that the list will still be confidential by the end of the trial process?

    And how much egg will be on Conroy's face when the extent of overreach inherent in the ACMA Prohibited Content system is revealed for all to see?

    - mark
    anonymous
  • the filter has too many flaws

    the least of which is the possibility to squash freedom of speech. others unclude:

    1.Loss of internet speed at a time when Australia is criticised for having slow BB
    2.HTTPs may also be fitlered, leaving it open to man in the middle attacks, which could make it easy for people to steal identities, and bank details online
    3. the list is not public, but it's also not subject to any control, and no current system is in place to appeal being put on the list
    4. the EOI form for the trial quite clearly stated that ISPs will be held accountable for any loss of money due to blocked access to legitimate business sites
    5. even an overblocking of 2.7% (lowest in July trials) equals millions and millions of perfectly legal websites blocked just to block a 1300 strong list. that's a mighty big ratio
    6. It's ridiculously easy to avoid, and Conroy said they dont even care if people circumvent it, so what's the point? Do they only want technologically-challenged, law abiding people to be filtered? certainly, CP lovers will still be able to get their fix (so it defeats the purpose yeah?)
    7. the list will eventually be leaked
    8. The list only contains about 50% of sites refused classification "because it depicts in a way likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult a person who is (or appears to be) a child under 18" so inevitably less than that 50% is actually CP (and leaked blacklists from other countries have revealed up to a max of double digits to be CP in 4 digit strong blacklists)
    9. Conroy can't even set up a digital set top box without help, so why is he trusted to know anything about the internet
    10. It'll be very simple to slip other things onto the list without anyone knowing
    11. Conroy has entered into a live trial without even setting acceptable limits to speed loos, underblocking, and overblocking
    12. Conroy ISN'T implementing P2P filtering (at least at iPrimus, who probably have the biggest P2P userbase of any of the ISPs in the first round) when he said he would include it (i still have my doubts as to whether he even has a filter with the capacity tbh, he certainly didnt test one back in july with the ability to do any more than block or throttle P2P)

    there are many many more

    BUT The biggest issue is...

    13. ACMA itself. It's just a group of people who respond to complaints about inappropriate or offending websites/tv shows/radio etc. they recently added an anti-abortion site to the list. last year they received 1,122 complaints. ONLY 14 went to the classification board. ONLY 4 were hosted in australia and were rated G, X, X, and RC. 293 they declared safe for viewing, and 778 they called as potentially prohibited.

    so we have the issue of the fact that that leaves 37 URLs unaccounted for. we have the issue that even though members of ACMA are previous CB members, they are in fact NOT the same as the classification board. they are NOT a judge, yet they make a decision on what is "illegal" and what is not. Conroy has said time and time again that the ACMA blacklist is all illegal material, but forgive me if i'm wrong, but i'm pretty sure a judge has to declare them illegal for them to be so. If Conroy wants to ban X rated stuff, then it has to actually be RATED X, not just guessed at being X. as evidence by the fact that ACMA had 25% of submitted australian websites classified G, it is quite likely that there are perfectly acceptable websites on the list, but because they dont submit every URL on their blacklist to the CB for classification or a judge, we only have their very impaired judgement on the matter. and it's not good enough!

    not to mention it's not illegal to possess half the stuff they are trying to block, just illegal to sell.

    oh and bestiality is on the list of things that get the alleged/potential refused classification by ACMA
    anonymous
  • Saving face

    "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."
    I fear it is already far too late for him to save himself. Having endured months of industry experts telling him the plan won't work he's still pressing ahead. He's already lost all respect from the IT community (who presumably he's supposed to be working for, more or less, or at least with), and any backdown will be seen as a failure by the pro-filter luddites who support him.
    anonymous
  • Mandatory opt-in filter

    Conroy should shelve the idea of fitering the entire nation and just require all ISPs to offer free opt-in filters for customers who so choose.
    anonymous
  • Filters like one they just cancelled

    Do you mean like the Government-run filter that they just cancelled?
    anonymous
  • Well said Sir

    Conroy.. Wake up, or come clean!
    anonymous
  • Deadhead Conroy

    Conroy is counterproductive, worse than useless.
    Krudd keeps him there, so Krudd is the same.
    The NBN will never happen. Any location without broadband will probably never get it.
    anonymous
  • Free filtering for parents

    You are incorrect to state there are no surfing controls for parents, here is one and there are more.
    http://www1.k9webprotection.com/
    anonymous