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Nov 21, 2008

Internet filtering: Crikey readers respond

Yesterday Clive Hamilton wrote that the governement's proposed internet filtering scheme had merit. Crikey readers fired up.


Yesterday Clive Hamilton wrote that the governement’s proposed internet filtering scheme had merit. Crikey readers fired up, with a heated debate in the comments section of Hamilton’s article. We recieved a lot of emails as well. Here’s a selection:

Repeating the People’s Front of Judea:

Rachel Dixon writes: Clive Hamilton’s rant in Crikey misses the point entirely. Hamilton wrote:

… if a strong case can be made to restrict other forms of content — such as how to make bombs — because it is a genuine social threat let’s have that debate without resorting to meaningless slogans about the right to free speech being always inviolable.

These are the principles involved in internet filtering, and it is important to separate them from practical questions of whether mandatory ISP filtering will be effective in limiting youth access to porn on the net.

Why is it important to separate the desire for “protection” from the “practical questions”? To do so is a little like a scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian in which the People’s Front of Judea debate the right of men to be pregnant. Clive can debate all he likes the desirability or otherwise of mandatory filtering, but the practical problems inherent in filtering are likely to deny him the ability to make filtering work, so the question of whether or not filtering is necessary is somewhat moot.

On Radio National on Tuesday night the host of a debate on this issue mischaracterised the problem with filtering when he asked “but even if it’s not 100% effective, isn’t it worth doing?” The answer is no. Because even if it manages to be 90% effective for 90% of the people (and that’s doubtful), it will be 100% ineffective for whatever proportion of the population is interested in the kind of content the government is seeking to restrict. All it will do is slow the network down, at a cost to Australian business and consumers. That cost will be very high.

Pa-dophiles, for example, will have no trouble at all accessing pornography via other protocols than HTTP. Bomb makers seeking technical advice and teenagers looking for p-rn may return to such ancient protocols such as NNTP, which predates the Web, or Bit torrent, which has been developed after the Web. And if not those, then other mechanisms. Proxies, TOR, encryption, SFTP — there are many many options. Proponents of filtering seem to confuse the Internet and the World Wide Web, and they are not the same thing.

It’s pointless to suggest that we can start by limiting major protocols and work out how to work on blocking other forms later. Filtering via all ports on a computer or mobile device is beyond the financial capacity of the country — it would bring our telecomms infrastructure to its knees. Packet level filtering is so time consuming and expensive that it would take Australian communications back to the Twentieth Century.

If mandatory filtering is implemented vast amounts of money will be spent trying to build a system that’s unsustainable and unsuited to its stated purpose. It’s Australia’s version of the technologically-unfeasible Missile Shield currently helping to bankrupt the US economy — a poor joke that uses rigged tests to “prove” its viability. You can’t block ICBMs — it’s just too hard. And you can’t filter the Internet with any degree of effectiveness either. Ask a Chinese student about it sometime.

To continue to pretend that the desirability of filtering is an important issue requiring debate regardless of its feasibility is to repeat the failings of the People’s Front of Judea:

LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
REG: But … you can’t have babies.
LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.
REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!
LORETTA: [crying]
JUDITH: Here! I– I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.
FRANCIS: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister. Sorry.
REG: What’s the point?
REG: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!
FRANCIS: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
REG: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

Won’t somebody think of the children?:

Rhys Tate writes: “Won’t somebody think of the children?” Clive Lovejoy (sorry, Hamilton) shrieks in yesterday’s Crikey. Cruel, perhaps, but when Hamilton accuses one side of a “hysterical response” then he should expect no less in return. Unfortunately, Clive, what we have here is a complex problem that will not yield to the simplistic solution that you and K-Rudd offer.

“What’s so special about the internet?” you ask. Well, it’s the first mode of mass communication that the human race has possessed that hasn’t been quickly subsumed to service the agendas of the powerful. Doubt that? Without the internet, I’d be trying to air this grievance on AM radio or the Hun’s 50/50, “media” bodies that exist not to distribute news, but to sell advertising, and allocate space for opinions accordingly.

Good luck to me, etc. Oh, advertising flourishes on the net, I’d be silly to suggest otherwise, but so do the warts’n’all viewpoints of the common folk, as loathsome as I may sometimes find them. Warts’n’all, Clive. That’s why we’re touchy about losing elements of what, when you consider it, is a truly remarkable beast. It allows us to hear everyone, not just those opinions sanitised for our viewing pleasure.

But let’s not mix my fanboyism for all things internet with a level, ambivalent argument. Thank Christ I was not exposed to Shetland p-rn and bomb recipes when I was a wee lad, Clive, or I might not be here to inconvenience you with my tappings today. Implement an Australia-wide ISP ‘net filter, by all means. At the same time, you may want to ban chat rooms, seeing as they are grooming pens for pa-dophiles. Peer-to-peer file transfers would have to go — most p-rn is distributed through these devilish programs. I’ve also received a couple of dodgy emails in my years on the net, too, so I’d devise an update for Outlook that blocks all email attachments.

Sorry — must be reacting with a “moral panic” of my own. Really, put the ISP filter in place. But let law-abiding adults at least have the opportunity to opt out of it (we promise not to look at child p-rn — most of us want a faster internet, without the “false positive” blocking of legitimate websites). Mandate that the government must keep an updated list of blocked URLs that is freely available to every Australian citizen, and the reason that each of these is blocked. Those who scoff at “The Great Firewall of China” snaking down to Australia would do well to read up on “network neutrality”: the concept that the internet is an open, level playing field, which has already been abused again and again by those ostensibly “in charge”.

Clive, I’m almost out of room, but here’s a final tip: co-opting the horrible tragedy striking our indigenous communities to shore-up a shonky argument is worse than offensive. Might be the sort of thing that’ll sell some ratings on Today Tonight, though … I’m sure you can Google their contact details. For now.

A civil duty to resist:

Marty Richards writes: Clive Hamilton asserts “Independent expert opinion appears to be that filters can sharply reduce the availability of material deemed offensive or unsafe at the cost of a small degree of degradation of the system.” I am an independent expert. I would label Hamilton’s assertion as misleading. I would go further but I’ll assume he didn’t intend to mislead …

Effective filters will have a massive effect on internet speed, and will very likely “blacklist” a lot of valid and legal sites in the process. However, the bigger problem — which Hamilton simply skips over — is that the “Authorities” in charge of maintaining the blacklist can easily make sure you can’t access other articles at their discretion.

China does this. It does actually work most of the time, albeit very slowly. If we must have filters — think of the children! — then they need to be “opt-in” as they were originally proposed, so that the claimed 93% of parents can avoid their responsibilities and have a filtered link. (note: these parents could already do this – for free and without hurting the internet at all – by installing the Government provided Net Alert software).

Now that Senator Conroy — backed by the myth believers Fielding and Xenophon — has decided to make the filters “mandatory”, we have a very serious civil duty to resist this latest imposition on our freedoms. The marches will start soon — I’m looking forward to seeing you all there.

Not filtering through:

Zachary King writes: Sorry Clive, but your assertion that “independent expert opinion appears to be that filters can sharply reduce the availability of material deemed offensive or unsafe at the cost of a small degree of degradation of the system” is quite simply, bollocks. Sorry, but I can think of no other word for it. I would bet my house (if I had one) that whoever your source was works for a company that just happens to sell the solution.

The main reason that there is a loud chorus of groans every time someone else in government starts rabbiting on about mandatory net filters is that the idea is simply not feasible. I cannot for the life of me understand why this has not filtered through to the senior levels of our government (pun intended). Remember the last trial we had? Johnny the 12-year-old school boy cracked the filter in about 52 seconds, and it took him another eight seconds to beat the patch.

It won’t work:

Duncan Beard writes: Clive Hamilton’s entire article is predicated on the idea that internet filtering is technically simple and that it works. It’s not, and it doesn’t. Perhaps if Mr Hamilton spent more time looking at the insane amount of innocuous web material that would be falsely censored by the proposed filtering scheme, and less time banging on pointlessly about “unthinking libertarians” and moral equivalency, then he’d at least have a basic understanding of opposition to the scheme.

Don’t mention the war:

Keith Binns writes: I was reflecting to myself recently that the most iconic picture of the Vietnam War: the young, napalmed, n-ked girl running away, would probably not be allowed to be published by the new censorship laws because of the difficulty of obtaining consent from her parents. Rudd still hasn’t increased the money to public schools but he has time for this sort of overreaction. It’s weird.


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2 thoughts on “Internet filtering: Crikey readers respond

  1. RJG

    The statement “Packet level filtering is so time consuming and expensive that it would take Australian communications back to the Twentieth Century. ” has a small error. Australian communications has not yet moved into the Twenty First century, and it only just makes it into the twentieth. Filtering will make communications technologies used in the 19th century quite attractive as an alternative.

  2. Peter

    Imagine Telstra trying to implement a content filter. Hahahahahahahhaahahhahahahaha, they can’t even provide reliable broadband.

    Just make everybody go back to dial-up so that it’s too time consuming to download kiddie porn.


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