No sex please, we're Labor

The council rubbish truck didn't pick up my bin last week. Instead, the garbage contractor left a big yellow sticker highlighting exactly why my old egg shells, rancid fruit, microwave pizza boxes, an ancient and smelly pair of sneakers, and the odd brick had been left to rot on my property.

The council rubbish truck didn't pick up my bin last week. Instead, the garbage contractor left a big yellow sticker highlighting exactly why my old egg shells, rancid fruit, microwave pizza boxes, an ancient and smelly pair of sneakers, and the odd brick had been left to rot on my property.

The instruction to remove inappropriate contents didn't specify what tipped him off. I was thinking the smell from the runners was the giveaway but, on reflection, it seemed the weight of the bricks made them the more likely culprit.

Am I alone in thinking everyone's day would have moved along just that little bit faster if, instead of climbing out of his truck to pick through my rubbish, the contractor had just pushed the button that made the robotic arm empty my bin, sneakers and all, into the truck? Did his dumpster-diving really avert an environmental disaster of epic proportions? And did he really think I wouldn't just make the next week's load lighter and less likely to attract his attention?

Speaking of rubbish, I note that our newly appointed minister for telecommunications etc., Stephen Conroy, has decided to begin his first year in the position by doing a bit of dumpster-diving himself. Plans to mandate ISP-level content filtering have revived a debate that I thought had long ago been relegated to the dustbin of history, if only because the Coalition government had accepted that it was an utter waste of time and energy.

Just trawling through ZDNet Australia archives, I note dozens of articles on the topic. Recall the protests when ISP filtering was mooted in 2005, or former minister Helen Coonan's conviction in 2006 that ISP filtering was unworkable. Or the even more ridiculous hysteria in 2001 about making ISPs responsible for customers' gambling habits.

After years of discussion, the best the previous government could do was the NetAlert content filtering program, which equips parents with a way to keep many children away from the Net nasties. Giving away millions of dollars' worth of filtering software isn't going to stop porn coming into Australia, but it's a step in the right direction. Clearly, however, it's not enough for Conroy, who is setting the tone of his tenure in this position and has, with this effort, shown that he too is not above wasting years of pointless debate trying to pursue some elusive and irrelevant moral high ground.

He makes the argument that filtering is a way to stop child pornography, and that's a goal nobody is going to argue against. But ISP-level filtering is really an extreme step that will do nothing to stop that particular scourge -- apart from stopping the few sickos too poorly-informed to use proxy servers.

What ISP-level filtering will do is to consume resources and time compromising the quality of the Internet feeds available to all Australians. It will impose extra costs on providers, slow down Internet services, block perfectly innocent content, and -- perhaps worst of all -- fuel the sneaking suspicion among many that the government is getting just a bit too involved in controlling what we can and can't see.

Even if the filters are only used for the noblest of causes, the fact that they're there at all will taint public perception of the government's control over the Internet.

I'm not here to ramble on about why ISP-level filtering is a supremely bad idea; this point has already been well discussed and reinforced across the media. What I will do, however, is note with disappointment that there seems to be a swelling undercurrent of filtering that does threaten to change the way we all use the Internet.

Consider the recent suggestions that AT&T may begin filtering to stop pirated content from traversing its network. For proponents of free speech, this is a Very Bad Thing. It seems -- based on the recently announced investigation into BitTorrent blocker Comcast -- to also violate US Federal Communications Commission policy that apparently prohibits comms providers from interfering in the transmission of data.

Comcast reckons it's just shaping bandwidth to ensure that a few heavy BitTorrent users don't spoil the experience for everybody else -- but tests show that even benign content like a 4MB version of the King James Bible is getting filtered.

There is heavy legal precedent in the US, where freedom of speech provisions have been extended online many times, to support bans on this kind of filtering. And while Australians may like to believe they enjoy similar protections, the government is wholly within its right (constitutional lawyers feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) to mandate it.

The question, however, is why Conroy wants to taint his time as minister by brewing a tempest in a teapot over an issue that has already been studied to death. Does he think that a Labor government can rewrite the laws of physics?

More importantly, he should realise that while abhorrent, child pornography Web sites are only the tip of the iceberg -- and that filtering will do absolutely nothing about a far more common threat to Australian children: sexual predators operating through perfectly legitimate Web sites, e-mail communications, peer-to-peer and instant messaging networks, and the like. Compared to these, child pornography sites are just low-hanging fruit.

If Conroy can focus his effort more productively and do something about this last bit, he will be widely hailed as having done something positive for the country -- just as I would have been happy if the garbo had just pushed the button and emptied my bin. But if he insists on turning dumpster-diving into a national mandate while doing nothing about even bigger threats, well, I doubt he will get such a warm reception in the long term.


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