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Feb 2, 2010

Filtering the facts: Conroy slips up when hitting back

Bernard Keane hits back at Broadband Minister Senator Stephen Conroy in their ongoing war over the government's internet filter and "blacklisted" content.

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Just before Christmas, while the rest of us were engaged in hi-jinks and end-of-year japery, Stephen Conroy was a man on a mission, to correct the calumnies heaped upon him by opponents of his internet filtering proposal.  He therefore sent a Crikey a lengthy and detailed rebuttal of points made by myself and the estimable Stilgherrian.

Points to Conroy for engaging with his critics on policy detail, something a few of his ministerial colleagues should think about doing.  Alas, there are some areas in his response where Conroy wasn’t, shall we say, entirely correct.

First was his claim — contra my point that his own trial saw 3.4% of content blocked when it shouldn’t have been — that the trial of blocking the current ACMA blacklist was 100% accurate.

We’ll leave aside the point that, regardless of whether filters blocked it 100% accurately, ACMA’s blacklist has some serious problems and no accountability other than via leaking.  That’s the fault of ACMA, not the Minister.

But we’ve since learnt that the Minister was not quite correct when he said that the ACMA list had been blocked 100% accurately in the trial.  The pro-filtering company, Watchdog International, let this slip in a study posted on its website in December and then hastily removed when its import became apparent.  Few things are forever lost to the internet, fortunately, and copies of the report remain available.  The Watchdog International paper candidly admitted that URLs containing a question mark couldn’t be blocked by one of the filters being trialed.  Another filter couldn’t handle URLs longer than 200 characters.  And there was the by-now well-known problem that blocking one allegedly offensive Youtube page blocked the whole site.

These problems were fixed by the URLs being removed from the trials for the affected filters.  So yes, the Minister was truthful when he boasted of the 100% accuracy rate.  It was just 100% after the URLs that didn’t work were taken out.

Still, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to, surely?

Except, the Youtube problem isn’t some small issue that can be sorted out with another line of code in the next filter update from parasites such as  Watchdog who stand to profit from this.  The filtering of high-traffic sites — and the Government repeatedly emphasises it wants to block pages not sites — is very difficult, as Conroy’s own trial demonstrated.  The Government’s response?  Well, I went to the Department of Broadband website to look in detail at the filtering FAQ, as Conroy had urged me.  It says:

The Government is aware of advice that adding a URL from high traffic sites to the RC Content list may have an impact on internet performance. Owners of most popular overseas-hosted websites that provide user-generated content already have arrangements in place to take down offensive material (including that which would reach the RC-rated threshold) and are keen to remove content such as child s-xual abuse material.

In consultation with owners of popular overseas sites, consideration is being given to exempt high traffic sites from having their material included on the RC Content list if they implement arrangements to either take down identified RC-rated content or to block it from access by internet protocol (IP) addresses in Australia.

So the Government is “considering” allowing big sites such as  Youtube and presumably others such as  Wikipedia and Facebook to be exempt from the filter if they either agree to prevent Australians from looking at bad stuff, or take it down themselves.

Well that should be interesting.  Will Youtube — actual owner, Google — agree to be an agent of the Australian Government’s censorship plans, and block Australian users from accessing Youtube content just because the Australian Government demands it?

Let’s take pro-euthanasia material, which under legislation enacted by that blight on Australia public life, Philip Ruddock, is banned online.  There are any number of videos on Youtube about euthanasia and suicide, some offering instructions or recommending it.  There’s even a detailed ad for, with instructions for where to get, Philip Nitzschke’s Peaceful Pill Handbook, which is banned in Australia, although those brave and intelligent souls at the Classification Review Board banned it not for breaching the Crimes Act for “counselling suicide”, but because it provided instruction in barbiturate use.

Much of that stuff must surely breach the Crimes Act and be candidates for classification as RC material?

That brings us to another error by the Minister.  I noted that, due to his obsession with having an RC-only filter, we now had multiple enforcement regimes for online content — material  was banned under the Crimes Act, material was blocked by ACMA under its flawed and tendentious filtering process, and material was blocked under Conroy’s new RC-only compulsory filter.  Not so, said Conroy.

Keane is wrong though when he argues that “www.childpr0n.com would be blocked under both [the RC content list and the current ACMA blacklist], [whilst] trying to inform the terminally ill about options for euthanasia online would be blocked under one but not the other”.  Such content is RC and would therefore be included on both the ACMA blacklist under the existing laws and the RC content list under the new scheme.

This puzzled me. Content does not naturally become “RC” by itself, as if by some rotting process of morally bad material.  To get onto Conroy’s filter, which is quite separate from ACMA’s filter of Queensland dentists and tuckshops, the Classification Board has to classify something (or more strictly not classify something) RC.   So I asked Conroy’s office to clarify.  Their response:

You are correct when you say that a URL would be added to the RC-rated content list “ONLY if the Classification Board classified the material as RC.” For instance, a URL containing information that advocated how to take your life would need to be the subject of a complaint and rated RC by the National Classification Board for it to be added to RC-rated content list that will be the basis of mandatory ISP level filtering.

I’ll take that as “Keane is right”, if only because I so rarely get to say that.

The point is not trivial.  Because Conroy is mortified at the idea that the filter will be painted as “thin end of the wedge” stuff he has pledged to fight anything that pushes it beyond RC material.  But of course that makes it more limited than ACMA’s current filter, and means all sorts of things banned under the Howard Government’s systematic attacks on free speech, including gambling sites, are banned or blocked in some circumstances and not others.

Oh, by the way, did you notice the reference to “child sexual abuse material” in the bit I quoted from the FAQ?  References to child abuse appear something like 20 times in the FAQ.  It appears the Department of Broadband has become infected with the same obsession with kiddie pr0n that Conroy has.  Hell, Conroy probably thinks I’m a pedophile.  “Clearly, Keane doesn’t think the government should try to limit exposure to RC-rated material online,” Conroy informed us.

Actually, at the risk of repeating the point from my original article, Minister, I don’t think governments should pander to voter ignorance by pretending to do something that by their own admission they can’t — like telling parents you can protect kids from “stumbling upon” RC material through an easily-bypassed filter.

There’s also something interesting about what’s missing from Conroy’s defence, as well.  Conroy used to refer to Labor’s election commitment to provide a safer online environment.  But, unnoticed, the phrase dropped out of his speeches and media releases early last year.  For a Government as obsessed with ensuring people knew it was keeping its commitments as this one, it was a tell-tale absence we should have wised up to much earlier: the Government’s current proposal far, far exceeds the commitment it took to the election, which was to “offer a clean feed internet service, not impose one on every user (or at least those without the most basic internet savvy to avoid it).  To her credit, it took the ALP’s own Kate Lundy to put this on the record.

Strangely, in other circumstances the Government would be screaming aloud that it had significantly exceeded its election commitment.  Why so quiet on this, Minister?

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