It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen as breathtakingly mendacious a policy announcement as yesterday’s declaration by Stephen Conroy that the government would introduce internet censorship.

It’s one thing to hold off on an announcement (which Conroy admitted he’d been sitting on since October) until the week before Christmas, when half the serious journalists in the country are on the other side of the world.  That had its reward, with minimal, and decidedly thin, coverage of the announcement in the mainstream media today.

It’s quite another, even in these days of spin and media management, for a government minister to stand up and blatantly declare that black is white, and the government will be proceeding on the basis of that fact.

The internet “filtering” trial — perhaps we should drop the “filter” term, and call it what it is, censorship — was carefully structured by the government so that the filtering technology tested would meet low benchmarks and limited performance requirements.  But it looks an awful lot like one of the reasons the government sat on the trial outcome for so long was because most of the trial results failed to meet even the minimal hurdles set up by the government.

On the basis of the trial report, even advocates of censorship could not support what Conroy has proposed, on the basis that it just doesn’t work.

That’s why Conroy, in charging ahead yesterday, had to tell a series of patent untruths.  That filtering could be done with “100% accuracy”, when the trial saw up to 3.4% of web content (which means tens of million of web pages worldwide) wrongly blocked.

That the “wild claims” that censorship affects internet speed have been “put to bed” when the trial, despite trying to define the problem away by declaring “negligible” effect on usage speed as less than 10%, saw speed reductions of 30-40%.

Or the big lie, that filtering works, when several filters were bypassed more often than not (in one case, more than 90%), and the only filter that defeated nearly all efforts to circumvent it was the one with the 40%+ performance degradation.

And as the report dryly notes: “Telstra found its filtering solution was not effective in the case of non-web based protocols such as instant messaging, peer-to-peer or chat rooms.”  Which are exactly the platforms that pedophiles use.

Bizarrely, Conroy hasn’t merely tried to claim black is white, he has constructed a whole new arm of censorship policy on the basis of it.  Under his proposed legislation, we would have two different forms of internet censorship.  There would be the first, existing censorship regime, which not merely prohibits RC-material, but prohibits sites with any adult content, including the sort of stuff you can see in your corner newsagent, without an age verification mechanism, and extends to restricting free speech, including advocacy of euthanasia and gambling.  ACMA enforces this regime on a complaints basis, to fulfil its statutory obligations under the Broadcasting Services Act and other legislation.

But in an attempt to deflect claims that the censorship mechanism would be the thin end of the wedge, Conroy yesterday was insisting that the only material blocked under mandatory filtering would be RC-material.

So there’d be a second blacklist, you see, Conroy’s RC-only blacklist, in addition to ACMA’s current blacklist.  So while www.childpr0n.com would be blocked under both, trying to inform the terminally ill about options for euthanasia online would be blocked under one, but not the other.

How would that work?  Well, that’s not clear.  How would you know whether you were blocked under “mandatory filtering”, or under the current legislative framework?  And what difference would it make?

Conroy has also promised that he’d be looking at the basic problem that ACMA can’t be trusted to administer a blacklist.  Not doing anything about it — just looking at it.  It was only courtesy of Wiki leaks that we learnt in March this year of the debacle of ACMA’s blacklist, in which ordinary businesses and school tuckshops were banned along with extreme s-x sites.  If replicated in a mandatory censorship environment, this would see businesses, NGOs and citizens disappeared off the internet, with potentially significant costs and no compensation.

Conroy’s solution is yet another discussion paper.  Quite what he and his bureaucrats have been doing since March on this issue is a mystery.

So what is the government up to, when it’s clear that its proposal won’t stop pedophiles creating and distributing their material, or stop terrorists communicating online, only punish legitimate internet users?

The government’s real objective here is to shore up its family-friendly credentials.  While the technologically literate may laugh at the trial outcome, and free speech advocates rail at censorship, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy know they’re a tiny minority of voters.  This is all about giving ill-informed and often lazy parents, most of whom think that you can “stumble upon” p-rnography on the internet, the illusion that their children are safe, even as their kids circumvent the mechanism and go looking for s-xual material, which is what kids have always done.  That parents should be active monitors of what their kids consume in the media is apparently old-fashioned thinking.

It isn’t about changing votes, so much as solidifying the government’s branding in the minds of mainstream voters as morally middle-of-the-road and supportive of families.

The other target is the coalition.  Hitherto, particularly under Nick Minchin, the coalition has been hostile to the filtering scheme.  But in the end, the coalition — which in the face of Green opposition will be necessary for Conroy’s Bill to pass the Senate — may struggle to oppose it.  Blocking the Bill will enable the government to portray the coalition as out-of-touch with families and “mainstream values”.  The value of censorship as a wedge far exceeds any losses that will accrue from a few IT nerds.

And if the technically competent, as the report says, can bypass these filters easily, what’s the issue?  Geeks can have an uncensored internet, while your average suburban mum and dad are happy their kids won’t be clicking onto child abuse while doing their homework.

This is where this political stunt has serious consequences, and where the issue stops being about the ineffectiveness of filtering technology and about freedom of speech.  Conroy insists that the censorship will only be about RC-material. “So for people wanting to campaign on the basis that we’re going to maybe slip political content in — we will never support that.  And if someone proposes that I will be on the floor of Parliament arguing against it.”

Good to hear, minister, and I actually believe you.  But you’re in effect asking us to trust not just you but every politician in the future.  We’ve all seen the confected moral panics that the tabloid media, and politicians, are happy to use.  Maybe it’s an unsavoury incident on a reality TV show.  Maybe it’s a particularly foul-mouthed chef.  The results are the same — the demand for politicians to censor, to block, to ban and restrict.

And that’s before we get to the moralisers and the demonisers.  Maybe it’s euthanasia, accepted and legal in other countries but banned from discussion in Australia.  Maybe it’s junk-food advertising, or alcohol advertising, another alleged source of vexation to parents.

The government’s censorship proposal locks in a universal mechanism that can be extended at will by politicians.  Those who want to circumvent it will be able to, yes, but the bulk of the population will be subject to it, barely aware that it’s there — like they are barely aware that politicians have already banned the online expression of certain ideas such as  euthanasia.

Do you trust politicians with such a mechanism?

Peter Fray

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