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Jul 27, 2009

Internet filtering: speed won’t be the issue

With word that Conroy's internet filter doesn't affect ISPs' speed, the debate will now centre around whether internet filtering actually “works” or not.

Broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy says he won’t discuss internet censorship until he sees the results of the field trial, now due in September. But David Ramil’s story for IT trade news site ARNnet suggests how the battle lines will be drawn.

Speed won’t be the issue. More than half the ISPs taking part in the trial are reporting minimal speed or technology problems, writes Ramil. The other ISPs either didn’t respond by deadline or refused to comment.

Now anecdotes are not evidence. The absence of evidence of problems is not evidence of absence — particularly when some ISPs are trialling the technology with as few as 15 users. But this is politics, not science. It puts the kibosh on GetUp!’s original anti-filter campaign, which focussed on the potential for filters to slow our internet connections.

With speed out of the way, come September the debate will be about whether internet filtering “works” or not.

Now as Crikey reported in April, before we can say, “It works”, we need to define what “It” is. We have to define the target, i.e. what we intend to block. And we have to define the accuracy, i.e. how much incorrect blocking or failure to block we, as a society, will accept.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Senator Conroy claims the target has “always” been Refused Classification material. Yet the systems being trialled are blocking other prohibited online content, such as, which would by my reckoning be rated X18+.

“The whole site had been blocked and it was just a standard p-rnography site,” Peter Hutton, managing director of OMNIconnect, told ARNnet. “[The customers] opted out of the trial straight away. It was a very embarrassing experience.”

In the Kafkaesque world of the secret ACMA blacklist, we can’t be told whether this site was on the blacklist, or whether this block was a mistake or not. However the site does appear on that blacklist leaked in March, which Crikey believes to be ACMA’s.

On the question of accuracy, Senator Conroy steadfastly refuses to provide a definition. Witness this exchange with Triple J’s Kate O’Toole from 7 April:

O’TOOLE: So if the trial does fail, and you’ve got to be open to that in a trial…

CONROY: We’ve said we’d be evidence-based.

O’TOOLE: …you’re going to abandon the…?

CONROY: We’ve said if the trial shows that this cannot be done, then we won’t do it.

O’TOOLE: And what’s the definition of “cannot be done”? What would be the acceptable amount to slow the internet down?

CONROY: Well now you’re asking me to pre-empt the outcome of the trial.

O’TOOLE: No no no, I’m not. You’ve got to have a … before you start the trial you’ve got to have an understanding of what is, what’s a pass and a fail, like you’ve got to be able to measure … you can’t sort of wait until the trial finishes and then look back and decide how you’re going to measure the outcome.

CONROY: Well actually that’s how you conduct a trial. You wait to see what the result is and then you make a decision based on the result. If the trial shows it cannot be done without slowing the internet down, then we will not do it. But if the trial comes back and says it can be done, then we will go down the path of blocking the RC, and we will look at how it’s possible for parents to be given a choice, a menu of options, that they can block their children from accessing.

O’TOOLE: So do you have a rate of over-blocking in mind that would be unacceptable?

CONROY: Well as I’ve said, let’s wait to see what the trial shows us.

O’TOOLE: And then you’ll put the goal posts up afterwards?

CONROY: As I said, you want to pre-empt the trial, then we’re happy to wait to see what the trial comes back to us with. Perfectly happy.

So roll on September, when we’ll start the messy argument about whether “It” works or not. Whatever “It” is.

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4 thoughts on “Internet filtering: speed won’t be the issue

  1. Andrew Kensy

    All this discussion of what ‘it’ is reminds me of a trick philosophy tutors, and precocious bastards in a pub argument, occasionally pull once everyone’s sick of deciding what ‘it’ is. Without ever, of course, coming to conclusion, it’s fun to throw in what ‘is’ is.

  2. Stilgherrian

    @Andrew Kensy: Philosophers are, almost by definition, bastards.

  3. hojuruku

    why isn’t my comment posted? Is it not interesting that minor political parties in Australia get blocked in China? think of the significance of being blocked in China? think where the intelligence to do that has likely to have originated from? Uh Oh. Conway’s promise not to block polictical websites is in tatters come Septemeber.

    (publish my old comment)



  4. hojuruku

    Oops it actually published it! (Crikey newbie). Ok Colin Jacobs from the EFA is in Shanghai, and he’s confirmed that is being blocked where he is. I’m on the other side of the country and it’s blocked here too. Either a zealous contractor for the Chinese system (from Australia) included this and other Australian blocked sites into the Chinese internet filter, or Police are sharing “intelligence” on what to block and trusting each other’s listings. On the SBS Insight special on web censorship Senator Conway answered questions discussing would Political websites be blocked under the proposed filter. He said never! We’ll now that you can criminalise political parties by calling them “outlaw” or a “criminal organisation” it seems that the bikies website is far game for blocking, along with the F.R.E.E Australia party they are setting up. It seems that it all that long ago it was a crime to be “Red”. Is Australia going back into a era of which-hunts and thought/ideological crime?

    I hope the Greens bring this issue up and wedge the Government:

    A) Do you want to block the bikies site and break your promise not to block political parties?
    B) Do you want to promise not to block the bikie’s website and support political free speech undermining your new proposed laws?

    Maybe the Greens could get their website blocked after being outlawed too! After all their policies killed all those people in the recent bushfires, as some politicians would lead you to believe. (Sarcasm was intended)