Rudd’s internet nanny plan targets the wrong enemy
We all want our kids to be safe online. Parents can’t be expected to monitor every click and it’s understandable that we’re looking to government for help.
But Mr Rudd’s plan to assemble a government generated list of unacceptable sites then demand Internet Service Providers (ISPs) monitor each page we visit is a step in the wrong direction.
ISPs direct internet traffic much like a post office delivers mail. Requiring them to examine the contents of transmitted data is like requiring the post office to read our mail before it’s delivered.
Such a scheme would be costly, an invasion of privacy and a potential brake on internet speeds. Previous internet filtering trials reveal both the over-blocking and under-blocking of content. In other words, the filter blocks content which it shouldn’t, and misses the content it is expected to find.
In the confusion, Mr Rudd’s solution misses the true enemy; the child porn markets and paedophile hang-outs like chat-rooms and peer-to-peer networks, neither of which will be subject to filtering.
Six week trials of filtering software were supposed to start last December but delayed when Australia’s major ISPs refused to take part. Once it was eventually underway, it was undermined by the absence of success criteria in the methodology and the fact that only Australia’s smallest ISPs are taking part.
Results were expected back in July, but again there has been nothing except silence and delays.
So what is the Government’s plan? First, they intend to block any content they deem “inappropriate.” Even more disturbing, that Government blacklist of banned websites will be kept secret, meaning Australians won’t even know what we are banned from seeing.
A recent leak of an ACMA blacklist offers an insight into how flexible the definition of “inappropriate” can be. Around half the sites on the list are unrelated to child pornography and include online poker sites, YouTube links, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia and religious sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.
The longer this fiasco continues, the more a clumsy one size fits all filter is revealed for what it is; a false sense of security for parents which does little or nothing to guarantee internet safety.
Incredibly, two years after taking office, the only thing Minister Conroy has managed to accomplish is the removal of the free, PC-based web filters made available by the Coalition. These filters were provided on an optional basis and allowed parents to supplement their own online safety arrangements with software that could be tailored to each individual household’s needs.
Thanks to Mr Rudd, they’re now a thing of the past.
While the rest of the developed world capitalises on the social, cultural and economic opportunities offered by the internet, the current Australian Government approach is swimming against the tide and back into the digital dark ages.
No other country in the western world has attempted to implement internet controls like this. In the United Kingdom, British Telecom has an optional, not compulsory, optional clean feed system.
In Canada, parental controls are available but again, they are not mandatory and ISPs are not legally obliged to adopt them. Sweden, Norway, Finland? No compulsory filter. New Zealand? No filter.
Even the most hardcore cyber libertarians wouldn’t object to the existence of an optional clean feed. What they object to, as do most Australians, is having such a filter imposed without consent.
The real solution is to resource our federal agencies adequately, allowing them to apprehend paedophiles who use the internet to contact, groom and meet potential victims.
That means industry leading resources and technology. It means more support for the AFP’s High Tech Crime Operations Unit and domestic law enforcement bodies like Queensland’s Taskforce Argos. It means developing tighter links with law enforcement agencies overseas. It means tougher penalties for those found guilty of online crimes against children.
Benjamin Franklin once said that those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Those evergreen values like freedom and self determination are not just glib clichés. They’re part of our national identity and we should think very carefully before we surrender any part of them to government.
On the strength of the evaluations so far, handing our parental responsibilities over to the state in the name of child protection may make the situation worse, not better. Revolutions may be politically attractive, but more often than not, the solution rests with a less headline grabbing approach - improving law enforcement techniques to catch offenders and empowering families to determine their own standards.
With access to leading technology, families are perfectly capable of protecting their children online without having to sacrifice their freedoms to a paternalistic Labor Government hardwired to believe that they know best and can do it better.
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