Of all the moments of frustration in last night’s SBS program Insight — and there were many — the most revealing was from host Jenny Brockie. After almost an hour debating internet “filtering”, Brockie said, “I’m still unclear about whether it works or whether it doesn’t work, as a system.”

Anthony Pillon, a smart man whose small business Webshield provides content-filtered internet services, reckons it does. But then he would.

Network engineer Mark Newton, also a smart man, reckons it doesn’t. They’re both right. Because no-one’s clearly defined the objectives — least of all the Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy.

“I have only ever identified [the material to be blocked as] Refused Classification in terms of child p-rn, bestiality, r-pe, inc-st sites, those sorts of things,” Conroy said last night. “For adults who want to be able to watch the other sort of material, we’re not proposing to do that. We’ve never proposed to do that.”

But you have, Senator. As Crikey has reported, you’ve previously and repeatedly described the to-be-blocked material as “prohibited content” on “the ACMA blacklist”, not a sub-set of it.

(I know, the distinctions between “Refused Classification” and “prohibited” and “illegal” and “blacklisted” are confusing, but understanding them is key. Once more, I recommend Irene Graham’s explanation at Libertus.net.)

Back in 2007, the pre-election policy Labor’s Plan for Cyber-safety said, “Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.” The author? Stephen Conroy.

That’s the problem. Conroy insists that nothing has ever changed, but it has.

We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

iiNet, Australia’s third-largest ISP, withdrew from the filter trials citing precisely these “changes in the policy” and “confused explanations”.
“It became increasingly clear that the trial was not simply about restricting child p-rnography or other such illegal material, but a much wider range of issues including what the Government simply describes as ‘unwanted material’ without an explanation of what that includes,” said iiNet’s CEO, Michael Malone.

Even last night Senator Conroy said, “We are talking almost exclusively about Refused Classification.”

Almost exclusively.

Almost.

Before we can say of internet filtering, “It works”, we need to define what “It” is.

If “It” is blocking a small, defined list of URLs, then it will work — provided no-one takes the 10 minutes to download software to circumvent the filter. If “It” is blocking in the real world, where curious kids or desperate p-dophiles do have a spare 10 minutes, then it won’t work.

The Plan for Cyber-safety was written in the election campaign maelstrom, so perhaps some ambiguity is excusable. Perhaps. But a year and a half later, the continuing absence of a clear and unambiguous statement of intent — without weasel-words like “almost” and “mostly” and “primarily” — represents a failure.

Computers don’t respond to rhetoric, persuasion or emotional appeals. Computers don’t have a “mostly” function. Geeks, therefore, demand clear language — particularly when there’s going to be a “technical trial”. Is Senator Conroy cannot communicate clearly with such an important part of his portfolio’s community, that’s another failure.

In his end-of-2008 wrap for Crikey, the esteemed Mungo MacCallum listed Senator Conroy as one of the three weak links on Rudd’s front bench. Three months into 2009, has his performance improved?

At yesterday’s CommsDay Summit in Sydney, Conroy actually commented on the pending anti-piracy legal case against iiNet, expressing obvious surprise that iiNet “have no idea if any customers are illegally downloading music”. Apart from any potential legal prejudice, Conroy is obviously unaware that it’s not only unethical for an ISP to monitor its customer communications, but almost always illegal.

Has he not heard of the Telecommunications Interception Act? An ISP is no more able to spy on its customers than Telstra or any other telco can listen in to our telephone conversations, or Australia Post can open our mail and read it. At least not without a warrant or other due legal process.

Neither do multimedia files have a magic label indicating that they’re being transmitted legally under the terms of a license or under fair dealing, or not.

These gaffes are yet another failure.

No, Conroy’s performance has not improved.

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Peter Fray

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