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Technology

Nov 9, 2012

Net filter backdown shows power in the hands of the smart

Stephen Conroy has abandoned plans to erect a filter around the internet. He learned moral outrage wasn't going to win the day. His bureaucratic colleagues need to do the same.

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It’s appropriate that the lingering but inevitable death of Labor’s mandatory internet censorship policy finally happened this week, because it’s a third fine victory for the connected and data-aware over dumb dinosaurs.

The other two are pollster Nate Silver’s precision data-driven prediction of the US election result, and the comprehensive ridicule of TV chef Pete Evans’ belief in the nutty nutritional pseudo-sciences of “alkalised water” and “activated almonds”.

These three disparate stories demonstrate a simple, obvious but frequently forgotten fact: this internet revolution thing is completely rebuilding the way human society handles information, at every level. Information leads to knowledge, and knowledge is power. So the power relationships are changing, fundamentally, at every level of society.

Fundamentally.

Every level.

In the jockeying for power in this rapidly evolving environment, the winners will be those who understand what it’s really about. One key factor is that brains beat brawn. In the online world, brain power can be pooled to create more intelligence, whereas muscular huffing and puffing just makes you look more stupid as your most ludicrous sound bites go viral.

Did Communications Minister Stephen Conroy understand this when he launched the censorship policy at the end of 2007 by criticising opponents? I suspect not. But he learned fast.

Conroy discovered the hard way that connected citizens could grab Labor’s pre-election policy document and focus on the imprecise language of “illegal” content versus “inappropriate” versus “offensive”. What was Conroy obfuscating here?

Citizens could educate themselves on the effectiveness or otherwise of the technologies required — and in 2007 and 2008 the numerate and technically literate were over-represented online because, heck, they built the internet and actually knew what it could and couldn’t do.

They could even organise themselves without knowing it, like ants after spilt sugar.

Conroy probably understood around the same time as his opponents did that Australia’s content classification system was a dog’s breakfast, with different descriptors for PG or M or whatever, and a Refused Classification (RC) category that really wasn’t just child p-rnography and terrorist training manuals but a ragbag collection of much, much more.

His decision to handball it to the Australian Law Reform Commission was, as I said at the time, a political masterstroke. It satisfied critics and bought him plenty of time — to the next election and well beyond.

The news that all Australian internet service providers will block access to material on Interpol’s child abuse blacklist — stuff that really is, to use that tired cliché, “the worst of the worst” — should in any universe populated by sensible people make Conroy’s political problem go away.

(It won’t make child abuse material go away, of course. Anyone who’s seriously after that stuff can bypass the Interpol block with a trivial trick. And it certainly won’t deal with the fact that the vast majority of child abuse happens in the child’s own home, school or church. But that’s another story for another time.)

While Conroy learned that in the digital world imprecise language makes you vulnerable, others in Canberra have yet to do so — most notably those behind the proposals for comprehensive data retention by ISPs. At the core of that debate is the difference between communications metadata (which can be requested by law enforcement agencies without a warrant) as opposed to communications content (which generally does require a warrant).

The government’s one-page working definition is, to anyone with a technical understanding of how the internet actually works and is evolving, virtual gibberish. Dangerously immature is how I described it.

Recent discussions in Senate Estimates and the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, on data retention have all showed that those at the top of the Attorney-General’s Department and the law enforcement and intelligence agencies really don’t have a firm grasp on any of this.

Bow-tied AGD secretary Roger Wilkins will need to learn fast that huffing, puffing and hand-waving needs to be replaced by openness and precision to avoid becoming the Gerry Harvey of public administration.

His colleagues too. I have no doubt they mean well, but evolutionary adaptation is needed fast.

Footnote: There are signs in today’s reporting of the filter’s death that some people still don’t get it. To pick, quite unfairly, just one example, the ABC’s reference to “the online community” seems to forget that includes everyone but the ancient, poor and stupid. Give ’em time.

Stilgherrian —

Stilgherrian

Technology writer and broadcaster

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