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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.


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 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.


  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 !

  11. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    CML, your opening comment was that the author of the article was “…a superior, insufferable, know-it-all expert”. When I phone Telstra’s service difficulties and faults department I am usually ‘helped’ by people who are know-it-all experts in the field of finding-your-way-around-and-through-Telstra’s-tortuous-IT-section. I find it is best to be courteous and calm because any show of attitude will leave me stranded talking to a machine.
    The very first time I used the internet, back in the ’90s, I was confronted with a sob story from a poor Nigerian woman who only wanted some advice about how to access my bank details so she could send me some money I had inherited. From someone I had never heard of. I nearly fell for it. A day later I could laugh about it but the first time it was scary how naive, even stupid, I could be.
    Frankly, I don’t think Stilgherrian has a “superior” bone in his body. His writing is for the lay person, is not at all ‘technical’ and in this case was talking about the politics of government internet intervention. And since his reference to the “ancient, poor and stupid” was about those who are NOT part of the online community, you need not have included yourself amongst them. But you chose to anyway. Oh well.

  12. Achmed

    Based on the last line anyone who is not a part of the “on-line community” is stupid. How arrogant and insulting.

  13. drsmithy

    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.

    Would you accept the idea of every single phone call you made being recorded ?
    Would you accept the idea of every letter or package you sent being inspected ?
    Would you accept the idea of video cameras in your house, car, and in public, recording everything you do ?

  14. drsmithy

    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.

    This is sadly true. Any “debate” about whether or not the assumption “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” has long since been deemed irrelevant.

  15. CML

    I read in the SMH ?last week, that it is possible for some “experts” to hack into cardiac pacemakers, and kill innocent people from 12 metres away. Most of the bloggers that followed said that it was indeed possible for this to happen, and that the authorities would have great difficulty in identifying who did such a thing.
    Some people thought Hitler was mad. Well I’m here to tell you that anyone who thinks this kind of technology should not be controlled is really out of their collective minds. It seems to me it is time to think about that.
    When we get to the stage where technology can be dangerous for ordinary citizens, it is time to control the bad elements. The example given is just one such possibility. Do you all want evil “experts” controlling these machines? I don’t!

  16. The Old Bill

    Nice one Stilgherrian. I am sorry CML, but I think you are being a little bit hysterical about the uncontrolled internet. Try to think of it as a road. You travel down the internet road and there are rules and police. Just like a road though, some people break the rules and don’t get caught. That isn’t the road’s fault. It’s just a road. Blaming it for child abuse of any kind, whether it be child porn, child soldiers, child slavery, child genital mutilation or anything else, is like blaming the road for all our road deaths. Draconian measures to control the internet are like dropping our national speed limit to 25kph. You may catch a lot more people doing the wrong thing, but is it worth the cost and inconvenience?

  17. CML

    @ TOB I am aware that the machines don’t run themselves (not yet anyway!). But the evil intentions of some people who use the technology is evident every day. It seems to me that the internet and associated gadgetry just make their activities so much easier, especially when there is nothing to stop, or at least slow them down.
    I find your last sentence very disturbing – so people who are hurt/killed as a result of said evil people using this technology are just to be seen as “collateral damage”? If that is the case, then humanity has lost it’s moral and ethical base. Makes you wonder where we will be in 5-10 years from now. Perhaps the machines will have taken over by then and those who don’t want any monitoring of them today will have arrived at “chaos”. Good luck!!

  18. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    CML, you insist that there is a “moral and ethical base” of/for humanity which is somehow degraded by any/all human activity. The result is collateral damage. Don’t you think this is a bit over the top? Humans can speak therefore they can lie, cheat, cover-up and so on. The beneficiaries/victims of this human capacity are other humans – it could be positive or negative collateral damage. We invent a pitchfork, a car, a gun, a phone, a computer, a tampon – each of which can be used for good or evil entirely on the whim of the operator. People can and have died as a result of intended or unintended consequences. Is this collateral damage? Try as we might, we cannot seriously monitor and manage every human’s every action. And in my opinion nor should we. Apparently, the proposed internet filter was never going to have the capacity to deliver the monitoring and management that had been promised. To have this pointed out by people not in government is not an insult or a slap in the face. Nearly everything humans do makes our activities, good or bad, “that much easier”. Isn’t that what life is all about?

  19. Harry Rogers

    All the usual relevant points have been raised both against censorship and for censorship in these comments . It sometimes surprises me that that they have to be discussed over and over again to get a point across.One really wonders what the supporters of censorship really want from spying on people?

    Do they presume that this will make the world a better place by identifying the sick ones at the expense of the whole. I guess so… because thats how all modern laws seem to work.

    We are restricted to speed limits because some fools think he/she can speed through dense traffic without any repercussions or play with firearms and cause no harm.

    I wonder when we will have governments that actually repeal laws? Never I suspect?

  20. The Old Bill

    I dare say CML that the last word on the subject has been provided in the latest news. You don’t need the internet to prey on children, just a church of any denomination, a youth group, or if that fails, a foster child.

  21. Hamis Hill

    To paraphrase an ancient philosopher in support of CML, “The unexamined internet is not worth having”.
    Leaving all the “deep thinkers” to their “stomach rumbling” contributions of the “she’ll be right” variety.
    The “precautionary principle”, anyone???

  22. CheshireCat

    @CML. those are the same tired arguments trotted out and refuted every time they are brought up.
    “so people who are hurt/killed as a result of said evil people using this technology are just to be seen as “collateral damage”? If that is the case, then humanity has lost it’s moral and ethical base.”

    YES. thats how the world works. thats exactly how the road example previously provided works. some people die on roads…but we don’t remove all cars and get rid of roads because of that. We put laws and rules in place, punish those we catch who don’t abide by them, and hope society and a good moral and ethical compass will keep most people in check.
    The internet is no differnt. you cant control it how you want to even if you tried. just like DRM…theres more peopel out tehre with more time and desire to break it than tehre is trying to fix or control it.

    far better to put your resources into tracking and charging those who break the rules, than try and monitor and control it for everyone.

    if you want protections for kids..put your PC in the lounge room and get a PERSONAL net nanny…and stay ahead of your kids. responsibility….its the same as not letting your kids hang out at the public toilets in the park after dark.

  23. gdt

    Stil, you write as thought politics is a contest, that there’s no cost to all these political maneuverings. That is not the case. For example, the AFP Online Child Exploitation Task Force had it’s funding cut, and yet these “we actually do something about the problem” people required only a small proportion of the funds spent on the failed filtering proposal.

    As for data retention, the difference between call data and content is key. When considering future communications law there is a good argument that accessing call data without a warrant was an unintended hole in the Telecommunications Act which should be corrected. It was certainly an unwelcome surprise to the minister of the time.

  24. Venise Alstergren

    CML: As with all people rabbiting on about evil and immorality
    you make a very fundamental error. The internet is an extension of the telephone. Should we ban the telephone? The real evil of today-and yesterday-is the priests who have been sodomising small children and the ease with which they have been avoiding prosecution.

    Then there’s the evil done by the human race to animals. Life is evil to those determined to look for it. Stop trying to hinder others because you don’t like the means of transmitting information.


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