A month or so ago I was prodded by @pat on Twitter to take some direct action on the #nocleanfeed issue.
For those wondering what the hell #nocleanfeed is all about, check out http://nocleanfeed.com. From their website:
The Australian Federal Government is pushing forward with a plan to force Internet Service Providers [ISPs] to censor the Internet for all Australians. This plan will waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and slow down Internet access.
What started as an election promise by the ALP during the 2007 election campaign to make a voluntary “clean feed” managed by the ISP available to households (as a counter the Howard Government’s initiative of funding the licence cost of software managed on your home computer) expanded into a proposal for a national, compulsory filter that no internet user would be able to opt out of.
While the compulsory list would be less of a nanny and would filter less content out, it would still mean every Australian would be subject to a filter, the likes of which is only found in places like China and Saudi Arabia. Worse, the super-evil list wouldn’t ever be made public (for fairly understandable reasons) so as a free country, we’d be being censored without any transparency; thoughts like 1984 and Big Brother then come to mind: after all, who watches the watchers?
Anyway, taking @pat’s prod, I emailed my local member, Sharon Bird, Member for Cunningham (ALP), and asked if she’d be prepared to meet me for a chat about it. Thankfully she was very open to a chat and keen to learn more, and we had an hour long discussion today.
My approach was to try and put aside the discussion about censorship, and I think it worked pretty well. In fact, trying to separate the merits of censoring some of the dark corners of the internet – since people have a range of views along – and declaring that the censorship debate right and appropriate, but putting it aside and talking about the problems with the filtering proposal, is a good approach for everyone interested in stopping the compulsory filtering of Australian internet access.
Instead, having defused the debate about whether it was right or wrong to restrict access to some material, I turned my attention to the two big problems with the compulsory filtering, which I saw as:
- Filtering web traffic will slow things down; for a new government that stood and won on a broadband enhancement platform, this seemed like a strange thing; and,
- Filtering web traffic won’t achieve their censorship or child protection objectives; it’s impossible to create a definitive list of dodgy stuff, filters are easy to get around with Proxies and VPNs, most of the dodgy stuff getting around the net travels via P2P or Email, and lastly, I’d be more worried about a kid being groomed by a real world paedophile in a chat room or on a social network, than I’d be about them searching out porn.
So, how did it go you’re probably wondering?
Overall, I was really impressed with Sharon’s grasp of the way the internet works. She’d been briefed to an extent before Christmas, but that was more about where the pilot was up to. She had read the Crikey article from this week about the Filter and appreciated that internet != web browsing, and that Peer-to-Peer plays a big part in how content gets around the world.
We talked in general terms about the objectives of the proposal to filter the internet, and boiled the motivations down into three groups:
- The government is trying to make it harder for baddies to get up to no good, such as browse kiddie porn;
- Parents want to make protecting their children from online nasties the government’s responsibility; and/or,
- The government made a political pledge in a campaign where they needed to court traditionally conservative voters, and being seen to do something about unsavoury content on the net was a necessary part of getting elected.
We then talked about how these three motivations were (mis)served by the concept of a compulsory national internet filter, and I pointed out:
- People doing nasty stuff don’t use websites. They use private P2P networks, they use VPNs and they do a range of other things to cover their tracks. If this was really the Government’s priority, take the hundred million plus they’re committing to the filter and give it to the AFP instead; they can then pose as kiddie porn traders and take the creeps down in a sting (like they do quite well from time to time already)
- The most dangerous thing for a kid isn’t looking at some porn; its being groomed in an online forum, social network or other place where people interact virtually, and for them to be manipulated to the point where they give out details like addresses, phone numbers, or God forbid, agree to meet someone in person without telling their parents. Sure, parents don’t like the idea their kids are looking at porn, but I reckon they’d be much more scared of them being physically or psychologically abused. The filter isn’t going to make any of this less likely, and if parents build a false sense of security that the government has made the internet safe for kids, so they don’t bother supervising, then the filter makes the internet a more, not less, dangerous place for kids.
- This motivation makes the most sense, but I pointed out that the ALP went to the election promising an opt-in clean feed for households, funded by the government. While many people think any sort of filtering is a bad thing, I really just object to it being compulsory. When it’s compulsory, my internet connection slows down. My business is less competitive. And then the government – perhaps a future government – has a tool to stifle free speech. If the Federal Government wants to waste hundreds of millions on a project of negligible use, I’m not going to start a movement: us Aussies are too laid back and we’re used to our Government’s wasting money – don’t get me started on the $10B bogan cash bonus fiscal stimulus package to prop up retail sales for products we just imported anyway – to get upset about them funding a voluntary feed.
All in all, Sharon was very interested, quite informed on the basics, and appreciative of our arguments and where we’re coming from. While remaining appropriately uncommittal, at the end of our chat I felt like she had a good understanding of the issues and consequences of putting in compulsory filtering technology.
This government has been very very strict on not breaking promises so far, and asking them to abandon the concept of a clean feed at an ISP level, funded by taxpayers is going to be an uphill battle. The solution looked pretty obvious to Sharon and I at the end of our chat: for the Federal Government to fund an optional clean feed for people to opt into, possibly supplied by a subset of ISPs who will take on additional technical complexity in return for government largesse, and to return the idea of a compulsory nation-wide feed to the “that was a stupid idea, wasn’t it” bin.
Other noteworthy parts of our chat included:
- Sharon suggesting that a better interface between the Minister and Industry might be a good thing; given the ALP have put on the record how important the feel internet infrastructure is to our economic future, the idea of a specific internet subcommittee in Infrastructure Australia could have merit
- When we talked about what it would take to filter P2P traffic, and we discussed Deep Packet Inspection, Sharon grasped the concept quickly and remarked “that would be like the Government filtering every single phone call people make”, with the obvious inference that that sort of thing would not stand.
- In Sharon’s office at least, they’re getting about an even 50/50 split between people who support the filter vs those who object to it; when we talked further though, those who support it are really arguing the merits of censorship, where those arguing against it are taking more of the line above – arguing the specific weaknesses, failings and collateral damage of a mandatory filter.
So, in summary, I came away from my chat with Sharon more impressed than I expected to be; those of us in technology fields are used to politicians who don’t have a background in them trying to make decisions and laws about them: and generally making the wrong decisions. On the contrary, Sharon was cognizant of the fundamentals, and was willing to learn more and explore the consequences of the proposed plans.
I’d encourage anyone reading this to get in touch with their own local members. Feel free to use the approach above as a template if you’re interested. If you have success, please post a note in the comments explaining who you got a positive/negative hearing from. Before legislation goes before Parliament, it has to be discussed and voted on in Caucus, so if we can build a list of MPs who understand the issue, and support the principle of the ALP delivering an optional, opt-in filtered feed, if they’re going to waste our money on filtering at all, then we stand a much better chance.