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Technology

Nov 9, 2012

Net filter backdown shows power in the hands of the smart

Stephen Conroy has abandoned plans to erect a filter around the internet. He learned moral outrage wasn't going to win the day. His bureaucratic colleagues need to do the same.

It’s appropriate that the lingering but inevitable death of Labor’s mandatory internet censorship policy finally happened this week, because it’s a third fine victory for the connected and data-aware over dumb dinosaurs.

The other two are pollster Nate Silver’s precision data-driven prediction of the US election result, and the comprehensive ridicule of TV chef Pete Evans’ belief in the nutty nutritional pseudo-sciences of “alkalised water” and “activated almonds”.

These three disparate stories demonstrate a simple, obvious but frequently forgotten fact: this internet revolution thing is completely rebuilding the way human society handles information, at every level. Information leads to knowledge, and knowledge is power. So the power relationships are changing, fundamentally, at every level of society.

Fundamentally.

Every level.

In the jockeying for power in this rapidly evolving environment, the winners will be those who understand what it’s really about. One key factor is that brains beat brawn. In the online world, brain power can be pooled to create more intelligence, whereas muscular huffing and puffing just makes you look more stupid as your most ludicrous sound bites go viral.

Did Communications Minister Stephen Conroy understand this when he launched the censorship policy at the end of 2007 by criticising opponents? I suspect not. But he learned fast.

Conroy discovered the hard way that connected citizens could grab Labor’s pre-election policy document and focus on the imprecise language of “illegal” content versus “inappropriate” versus “offensive”. What was Conroy obfuscating here?

Citizens could educate themselves on the effectiveness or otherwise of the technologies required — and in 2007 and 2008 the numerate and technically literate were over-represented online because, heck, they built the internet and actually knew what it could and couldn’t do.

They could even organise themselves without knowing it, like ants after spilt sugar.

Conroy probably understood around the same time as his opponents did that Australia’s content classification system was a dog’s breakfast, with different descriptors for PG or M or whatever, and a Refused Classification (RC) category that really wasn’t just child p-rnography and terrorist training manuals but a ragbag collection of much, much more.

His decision to handball it to the Australian Law Reform Commission was, as I said at the time, a political masterstroke. It satisfied critics and bought him plenty of time — to the next election and well beyond.

The news that all Australian internet service providers will block access to material on Interpol’s child abuse blacklist — stuff that really is, to use that tired cliché, “the worst of the worst” — should in any universe populated by sensible people make Conroy’s political problem go away.

(It won’t make child abuse material go away, of course. Anyone who’s seriously after that stuff can bypass the Interpol block with a trivial trick. And it certainly won’t deal with the fact that the vast majority of child abuse happens in the child’s own home, school or church. But that’s another story for another time.)

While Conroy learned that in the digital world imprecise language makes you vulnerable, others in Canberra have yet to do so — most notably those behind the proposals for comprehensive data retention by ISPs. At the core of that debate is the difference between communications metadata (which can be requested by law enforcement agencies without a warrant) as opposed to communications content (which generally does require a warrant).

The government’s one-page working definition is, to anyone with a technical understanding of how the internet actually works and is evolving, virtual gibberish. Dangerously immature is how I described it.

Recent discussions in Senate Estimates and the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, on data retention have all showed that those at the top of the Attorney-General’s Department and the law enforcement and intelligence agencies really don’t have a firm grasp on any of this.

Bow-tied AGD secretary Roger Wilkins will need to learn fast that huffing, puffing and hand-waving needs to be replaced by openness and precision to avoid becoming the Gerry Harvey of public administration.

His colleagues too. I have no doubt they mean well, but evolutionary adaptation is needed fast.

Footnote: There are signs in today’s reporting of the filter’s death that some people still don’t get it. To pick, quite unfairly, just one example, the ABC’s reference to “the online community” seems to forget that includes everyone but the ancient, poor and stupid. Give ’em time.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Net filter backdown shows power in the hands of the smart

  1. floorer

    I wish when the ABC interviewed Conroy or Turnbull that the interviewer had a good working knowledge of the topic so could refute fud.

  2. Machina Sapiens

    While I agree with the general tenor of the article, I think the main point to be drawn from this change Is that Labor doesn’t need to pander to the idiot Fielding anymore, so Conroy could stop pretending to be an idiot too, and let it drop (after a decent interval so he can reasonably pretend that that’s not what was happening)

  3. Harry Rogers

    The relevancy of the technical knowledge behind the filters I consider is a minor and to some extent irrelevant issue. It is like saying lets spy on everyone with fancy cameras but nobody knows how to operate the cameras.

    Surely the whole issue is the matter of spying on your own people? Note Roxons jabbering regarding intended new ISP laws. Once you get to the point of starting to examine matters of technicality then you have gone way past the point of actually debating the proposal itself.! It almost assumes that the law is OK.

  4. Benji

    Interesting article. It always reminds me how much I don’t fully comprehend about the internet and related IT techonology. I know I am inviting derision if I don’t word any of the following correctly but surely I am not the only one out there wondering about my inadvertent cyber presence.

    Viewing and commenting on this site leaves a cyber footprint which would tell someone something valuable about me. For example the recent US election was a case of Big Data tunnelling down to the individual voter, key information was known about likely voting and social preferences. God knows how much Google, Apple and Facebook know about me and to what level. There are probably other third party aggregators out there who can do I don’t know what. But I am sure if there is a buck to be made, then it is already happening.
    Can anyone please direct me to a straight forward explanation of what I should and more importantly, shouldn’t be worried about as a private citizen. Perhaps the author of this comment is suitably qualified to pen a warts and all article for the moderately cyber literate about appropriate net behaviour. For example – should people stop using torrents? I am already contemplating deleting my google and facebook accounts, but it is probably too late to make much difference and would it matter anyway?

  5. CML

    What a superior, insufferable, know-it-all “expert” you are, Stilgherrian. Which, of course, makes me “ancient, poor and stupid” I suppose. You write articles for the IT literate and don’t care about anyone else. Well if your kind is who will rule the world in the not too distant future, heaven help us!
    While I acknowledge the usefullness of this present and future technology, the mere fact that there is no way of controlling it, tells me that there will be abuse of the system which will hurt the vulnerable, especially children. But apparently that’s okay with you lot, so long as it doesn’t interfere with what you want to do! What a selfish and dangerous attitude you all display.

  6. drmick

    This is not new knowledge. Confucius and the early Greeks knew that it was pointless to argue with an idiot. Their societies also knew the danger of a little knowledge being a bad thing. They had scholars then.

  7. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    CML, go back to the ACL.

    WONT SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

  8. CML

    Pi+s off!, GH – I am an atheist of LONG standing!! My opinion has nothing to do with the ACL or any similar religous abomination. Just simple standards of humanity.
    It is very clear to me that none of you who agree with the author of this load of rubbish have ever had to deal with victims and their families/friends. I have. The internet (uncontrolled) just increases the odds that there will be more of them. Stup+d git!!

  9. CML

    I give up!!!!! What the hell is going on at Crikey?????

  10. Thteribl

    Understanding the internet age means that there are now innumerable ways of accessing information, the most important of which is the internet which has innumerable ways of delivering information to you in innumerable formats. You want poxrn ? you want stock market analysis ? You want to know how to make a boxmb ? You want to bring down the govexrnment ? How many different ways would you like ? If you are cenxsored, just go on satellite like they do in China and Iran … Net filter = fairyland . Good analysis, Crikey !

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