Kids are still unsafe and our freedom is still under threat
The cyber world celebrated last week following the Labor Government’s supposed ‘back-down’ on its mandatory internet filter proposal. Instead of imposing its own ‘clean feed’, the Government has begun issuing notices to require ISPs to filter a more limited Interpol ‘worst of the worst’ list. However, this change leaves a lot to be worried about.
We should be worried that the Government is using an obscure section of the Telecommunications Act - originally passed by parliament in 1997, ten years before Labor first took the policy to an election - to avoid legislative scrutiny.
We should be worried that the Government is still forcing ISPs to block a list of web address, with the major change pertaining to who writes the list.
We should be worried that rather than just our Government censoring and choosing what we can view online, many other Governments in democratic and very undemocratic countries will be deciding through Interpol.
And finally, we should be worried about the possible expansion and extension of the Interpol list.
The issue of mandatory Internet filtering has never been about what content is unacceptable; there was always agreement, even amongst its critics, about the unacceptability of the main target, child pornography. Nor was the main issue that the previous plan would slow down the Internet.
The central concern has always been the principle of not giving the Government control over what we can view online. However, the new plan is even worse than just giving our Government the power; we are giving this power to other unaccountable Governments and police forces. Moreover, unlike with the original proposal, with a clear complaints procedure, if a website is incorrectly put on the list Interpol provides no clear way to get it removed.
While right now the list is of little threat, Interpol could expand or change the list criteria, which Australian ISPs would be forced to implement. Alternatively, there is little stopping a future Government from using the already created infrastructure and legal framework to require the blocking of another list of websites. Considering how the law is already being used, there is little theoretically stopping the Government from requiring ISPs to filter any other illegal material - be it refused classification material, such as information about euthanasia, or overseas gambling sites.
This effectively leaves us in the exact same circumstance as the original plan: few of the websites on the current list are problematic, however it is the fact that the capabilities exist and the power exists that could lead to future abuse.
Optus and Telstra blocking the Interpol list at the moment is concerning, but this is only because they did so to avoid harsher Government regulation in future; the threat of Government regulation has effectively acted like actual regulation and compulsion. However, in general, there is nothing wrong with ISPs voluntarily filtering content as they see fit.
If filtering is optional, competition protects the user from mistreatment; we can always swap to a different ISP if the filter becomes unacceptable and a private provider is unlikely to apply an unacceptable list, for fear of losing customers. None of this is possible if the Government is mandating all ISPs implement the same filter. If the list goes bad, we are all stuck with it.
Many of the same problems with the original ‘clean feed’ also apply to the new proposal. It will do near nothing to stop people from willfully making, trading or accessing child sexual abuse through unblocked sites or peer-to-peer transfer. It will also continue to throw parents into a false sense of security, as once again very little will be blocked and the dangers of the Internet will continue.
Parents’ closely monitoring their children’s activity remains the only effective way to ensure kids are protected online.
Liberty is rarely taken away all at once; in fact we have most to worry about in cases like this, when it creeps away without many people complaining. Too often, following a long debate, we allow our Government to choose a more ‘moderate’ approach to an unpopular policy. The Government makes this choice to avoid the negative scrutiny of worst option. The original critics respond by breathing a sigh of relief in the knowledge that their worst fears have not been met.
However, it is this very sigh of relief that is most dangerous; once we ignore what is being done because it is not the worst option, we lose our chance to achieve the best option. Our Government does not need nor should it have the power to control the Internet through any manner of mandatory filtering.
Matthew on Twitter: @matthewlesh.
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