As any farmer can tell you, fencing is bloody dangerous. The stretch-wire-between-posts thing, I mean, not the pointy-steel-pokey thing. One mistake and it’s THWACKKKK! Ten metres of barbed wire whipping into your face.

Senator Stephen Conroy is discovering the hard way that trying to build a Rabbit-Proof Firewall around the internet is just as dangerous. As Bernard Keane points out in Crikey today, the standard politicians’ tactic — lying — doesn’t cut it in today’s hyperconnected world. But even this morning, on ABC Radio National’s The Media Report, Conroy was still claiming it’s only about illegal content.

“There is illegal material on the Net, things like child p-rnography, things like ultra-violent sites,” intoned Senator Conroy. “What we’re seeking to do is take technology and actually enforce the existing law… We’re seeking to use new and emerging advances to block access to sites like that.”

“Let me be clear,” he continued. “We are committed to work with the industry to see if it is technical feasible — that’s why we have conduced a laboratory test and we’re moving to conduct a live test with ISPs, and that’s Labor’s policies.”

Thing is, we can all download the results of that lab test Closed Environment Testing of ISP−Level Internet Content Filters and read for ourselves, on page 2, that the tests covered “technology to filter illegal or inappropriate content”, and on page 21 how the test sites included those rated PG, M, MA… Despite Conroy’s repeated assertion, the tests explicitly included perfectly legal material.

Why conduct tests of something you don’t intend to implement? A waste of taxpayers’ money, surely?

Why continue with a “live” test when the lab test demonstrated such poor performance?

As Crikey has reported (Tuesday, 9 July 2008, “Internet filters a success, if success = failure“), even the best filter has a false-positive rate of 3% under ideal lab conditions. That might not sound much, but Mark Newton (the network engineer who Conroy’s office tried to bully last week) reckons that for a medium-sized ISP that’s 3000 incorrect blocks every second. Another maths-heavy analysis says that every time that filter blocks something there’s an 80% chance it was wrong.

Senator Conroy was back-pedalling this morning:

A whole range of people have said, ‘Hey, let’s expand this! That’s a debate that we will come to. We are no further than establishing at the moment whether it is technically feasible. In terms of what some of the Senators claim should be included on the blacklist, I’m sure that when we get to the debate down the track, if it proves to be technically feasible, there’ll be a whole range of people with a whole range of demands about what should be on the blacklist. But what we’ve committed to do is practically implement what’s on the blacklist at the moment.

Conroy justifies continuing the trials by saying Labor “made this commitment back when Kim Beazley was leader of the Labor Party.” True, they did. They also committed to a Coast Guard and a Department of Homeland Security — both well and truly dropped.

Whatever Conroy says, this is a-se-about policy-making. Surely the sensible way to proceed would be to decide what Australians should and shouldn’t see on the internet, express that in a coherent policy, and then ask the technologists and educators how to achieve that aim.

Mark Newton was spot on when he said:

Politicians assume that parents are ignorant about the Internet because politicians are ignorant. Yet parents came to grips with it years ago; the last remaining social group in our country who expresses difficulty with the Internet appears to be baby-boomer Federal politicians, whose child-rearing days are mostly well behind them.

Well, the Government is now getting a crash course in hyperpolitics. Those online are better connected, smarter, and faster. We can spot the lies.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey