The Coalition demonstrated some rather special advanced internet engineering last night, combining an internet content filter with a time machine and a Ferris wheel. That takes talent. And two contradictory child protection policies.
Politicians of a certain species have been horrified by the internet's ability to deliver information of every possible kind, should one choose to ask for it, ever since the thing was invented. But here in Australia, efforts to force the unruly tubes to behave themselves by technical means really kicked off in 2007, when a couple of weeks into the election campaign, Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety (PDF) was suddenly added to the policy mix, with its talk of mandatory content filtering at the internet service provider (ISP).
Ah, those were the days! Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy barraged with questions at every public appearance. Shouting matches with journalists. Petitions! Hashtags! Twibbons!
So it was with a sense of nostalgia that I greeted the initial version of The Coalition's Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children (PDF). As ZDNet has reported, it proposed that a content filter be installed by default in every home network router and every smartphone, unless the owner proved that they were 18 years or older and confirmed that they wanted to opt in to adult content.
It was as if the Coalition time machine had taken Labor's policy, crossed out "computer", something a child might use unsupervised in their bedroom, written in "mobile device", something a child might use unsupervised literally anywhere, and moved the filter from the ISP to the customer's equipment.
Predictably, the policy framed the internet as a chamber of horrors.
Children face many risks online. They risk being a victim of child pornography, being groomed by a paedophile, becoming exposed to violent, pornographic, or other age-inappropriate content, or being a victim of malicious cyberbullying.
The community is understandably concerned about the content and experiences children are increasingly exposed to online.
Predictably, instead of allaying those concerns, the Coalition validated them by proposing a new Children's e-Safety Commissioner to "take the lead across government in developing and implementing policies to improve the safety of children online".
Children face all these risks offline, too, of course, plus many others. Physical injuries from accidents, sporting injuries, or even, yes, non-cyber bullying. Contagious diseases. Asteroid strikes. Actual physical or sexual abuse — and we know that's more likely within the family than anywhere else.
But we don't have a Children's Safety Commissioner offline, though the risks be greater.
Of course, that's not how ignorance-fuelled moral panic works. No, the internet is dangerous because it's "new", at least on political time scales. Every child is at risk. We must have a Children's e-Safety Commissioner to hover over them, like a cross between a cyber-fairy godmother and everybody's friend Tom from Myspace.
Nor, in the offline world, do we have government-mandated content inspectors in our meeting halls, churches, public parks, school playgrounds, analog telephones, suitcases, courier vans, letter boxes, conversations in the back seats of school buses, or anywhere else.
But the internet is such a vastly bigger threat to children by having none of the physical threats — yes, I know, shut up, this is politician logic, don't question me — that we must have government filters in our mobile devices to block "harmful material". Or "age-inappropriate content". Or "inappropriate material".
There's that time machine at work again. Just like Labor's 2007 policy, the Coalition jumbles the descriptions, conflating relatively benign age-inappropriate material (such as MA15+ material being seen by a 14-year-old) with child abuse material.
And, of course, once government-mandated software is installed in everyone's smartphone, no politician would ever suggest adding more functionality. Especially not any monitoring of any kind. Not even just for compliance purposes. Uhuh, not a bit. Ever.
Fortunately, within hours, the Coalition had powered down its time machine and powered up the Ferris wheel, wheeling out that policy — it was a "mistake" that the wrong policy was uploaded, and obviously, when in government, nothing so silly could ever possibly happen because internet skills — and wheeling in a new one.
Gone was the filter-by-default opt-out policy; in came the policy the Coalition has been discussing for months.
We will work with mobile phone companies (such as Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and their resellers) and internet service providers (which provide fixed-line broadband services to the home) to make available software which parents can choose to install on their own devices to protect their children from inappropriate material.
It essence, it's an extension of the Internet Industry Association (IIA) Family Friendly ISP scheme into the mobile realm — something that's been working just fine since 2002.
But wait. That's the only thing that's changed between the two versions of the policy.
All the rest of the scary-internet framing is still there.
The Coalition may not be waving the paedophile-on-a-stick to scare us into accepting bugs in our telephones, but it's still waving it to scare us into ... well, that's currently unclear. Watch these guy closely.