Twelve months out from the next federal election, the Federal Labor Government has backed away from a controversial plan to introduce mandatory internet filtering of illegal content, making existing legislation that prohibits distribution of this material in Australia, virtually worthless.
In place of the mandatory internet filter, ISPs in Australia will now be required to block 1,400 child pornography websites identified by Interpol. But if all those who opposed the original plan on technical grounds are correct, it’s reasonable to assume that blocking of these child pornography websites at ISP level, will be no more effective than the Government’s original plan. But no-one is going to make the argument – on this issue the techxperts will remain silent.
When Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced this week that the Federal Government have scrapped their plans for a mandatory internet filter, vocal opposition on the internet turned from outrage to celebration of a victory over censorship. But what have internet users in Australia actually won?
We’ve been given the green light to flout our local laws prohibiting the distribution of material refused classification in Australia. “This includes real depictions of actual sexual activity, child pornography, depictions of bestiality, material containing excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use, and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act”.¹
All material refused classification in Australia is hosted overseas (it’s illegal to host it in Australia), making content creators in the United States and other foreign countries the ‘real beneficiaries’ of the Australian Government’s decision.
We’ve lost the opportunity to lead the rest of the world in regulating ‘the dark side’ of the internet. No-one can deny there is a dark side of the internet that can and does have real world consequences for individuals and society. Policing the dark side of the internet is a mammoth task for local authorities, made all the more difficult because legislation lags so far behind the technology used by criminals, scammers, spammers and others who inhabit the dark side of the internet. If something isn’t done, the internet will eventually become as dangerous as walking alone at night on a dark, city street.
We’ve also lost the opportunity to improve on existing methods used to fight crime in cyber space. Some of the most vocal opposition to mandatory internet filtering in Australia came from the techxperts who argued it wouldn’t work because it’s relatively easy to get around existing internet filters.
Firstly, internet filtering at the ISP level isn’t as easy to get around as the internet software you install on your home computer.
Secondly, internet filtering at ISP level would improve over time. The only reason the technology has vulnerabilities is because there has been no incentive to improve on existing ISP filtering or the methods used to get around it. Regulation backed up by practical Government support (research grants etc) will provide all the incentive needed to get ISPs and tech start-ups to improve on existing technology and create new and innovative products for use in this area.
Electronic Frontiers Australia and others who have dedicated the past five years to opposing mandatory internet filtering will have nothing to do. Won’t somebody please think of Michael Meloni, Stilgherrian, and that guy who wrote for TechCrunch who called me a Nazi, who made their reputations (and some money) on leading the charge against mandatory internet filtering. Okay, I’ll admit it, that was a cheap shot at a few guys who gave me a lot of grief when I came out in support of mandatory internet filtering – but believe me, they deserve it.
Adam Turner from the Sydney Morning Herald says that war has been declared on the internet between those who want some regulation of the internet and those who want none². Those are not the words he used. I was being being polite. But then, I’m not at war and neither is anyone else it seems.
Compared to past stories that have appeared in the media about the mandatory internet filter, public reaction to Senator Conroy’s announcement this week has been pretty sedate. After five years, I think this debate has finally run out of puff.
Which suits me just fine. All I want, all I’ve ever wanted, is to see an end to the ‘wild west’ mentality that has come to dominate internet culture.
The internet isn’t one big massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The internet is inhabited by real people and as we have all seen in the media over the past couple of years, what we do online has real consequences for ourselves and for others. If you wouldn’t do it offline, then why should you be able to do it on the internet. Now I ask you. What’s wrong with that?
Photo credit: © Maxim Bassein – Fotolia.com