What is the Government's plan?
Although the final details of the filtering plans have been kept under wraps, the Minister is on record as being firmly committed to a mandatory clean-feed internet to Australian homes, schools and public computers. A trial of filtering software by the ACMA has already been performed, with a "live" field pilot to follow later this year. We must act fast before millions of dollars are squandered on this technically impractical and democratically unworkable solution in search of a problem.
What do we know so far?
- Filtering will be mandatory in all homes and schools across the country.1
- The clean feed will censor material that is "harmful and inappropriate" for children.2
- The filter will require a massive expansion of the ACMA's blacklist of prohibited content.3
- The Government wants to use dynamic filters of questionable accuracy that slow the internet down by an average of 30%.4
- The filtering will target legal as well as illegal material.5
- $44m has been budgeted for the implementation of this scheme so far.6
- The clean-feed for children will be opt-out, but a second filter will be mandatory for all Internet users.7
- A live pilot deployment is going ahead in the near future.
What we don't know is just as important.
- What age level is the country's Internet to be made appropriate for? 15? 10? 5 years old?
- Who decides what material is "appropriate" for Australians to see?
- How are lists of "illegal" material compiled?
- Who will maintain the blacklist of prohibited sites?
- How can sites mistakenly added to the list be removed?
All of us want to see children protected from content that could be disturbing or harmful. The clean-feed filter is not a good way to go about this, and could actually reduce the safety of children online.
There are technical issues.
The clean-feed, if attempted, will be a technical disaster. The Internet does not work in a manner that would let a filter be effective, and the World Wide Web contains far more content than could ever be effectively rated by a Government organisation. The host of technical hurdles include:
- Like asking Australia Post to filter out objectionable letters, a filter would require ISPs to examine all web traffic, causing enormous expense and technical headaches.
- A filter will slow Internet access down by up to 80% according to a Government report.4
- Even the most accurate software the Government has tested would incorrectly block 10,000 sites in every million.4
- The ACMA would be overwhelmed with the task of maintaining a blacklist. Millions of web sites, with the list changing on a daily basis, would need to be monitored by Australian bureaucrats - an impossible task.
- Only illegal material published on web sites could be targeted, completely missing other methods of distribution such as BitTorrent.
- Any determined user - including children - could bypass the filter quickly using an anonymizer service, open proxy, or VPN connection.
- The clean feed would be less customisable and effective than a PC-based filter.
In short, as the best experts in the country unanimously agree, Conroy's plan does not make sense technically.8
There are free-speech concerns.
Although the initiative is intended and marketed as a tool to help protect children from the dangers of the Internet, this paternalistic scheme raises some troubling issues that affect all Australians. As a source of daily information, the Internet increases in importance every day. Do we really want the Government of the day deciding what Australian adults can and can't see? Do we want Australia to join a censorship club in which Burma, China and North Korea are the founding members?
- The list of prohibited sites will probably be secret, so it will be hard to know what content the Government has effectively banned.
- Filtering will be compulsory in all homes, even where there are no children.
- It is unknown whether there will be any way to have content removed from the prohibited list.
- How far will the list go, now and in future? Will it filter out material on sexual health, drug use, terrorism... even breastfeeding? Euthanasia and anorexia have been touted by Government MPs as topics worthy of filtering.9
The Clean Feed is bad policy.
In short, even if it worked the filter would be terrible policy. By censoring the entire country's Internet access down to the level of a child of indeterminate age, it robs Australian adults of ability to make their own decisions about what content they view.
- Most Australians don't want the filter.Support for this overly broad policy is virtually non-existent, even from child-protection organisations. A recent survey shows that 51.5% of Australian net user strongly oppose the plan, while only 2.9% strongly support it.10
- One size doesn't fit all. A single filter list can't deliver results that are appropriate for all parents, teens and children, with no way to customise the filter for your household.
- The protection for children is minor at best, an illusion at worst. The clean-feed does nothing to protect children from real threats like cyber-bullying, online sexual predators, viruses, or the theft of personal information. It may provide a false sense of security to parents, reducing effective monitoring of their children's online activities.
- The money is better spent elsewhere. The filter will cost tens of millions of dollars to attempt. Yet the Government's own studies admit education is more effective than filtering in protecting children, and that "content risks" are less dangerous than other risks.11
- No other democracy has a scheme comparable to the clean-feed. Comparable systems in Europe only filter a handful of illegal sites, and then only to prevent accidental access. 12
- Electronic Frontiers Australia
- Defending Scoundrels
- Broadbanned revolution
In the News
- No opt-out of filtered internet
- Conroy announces mandatory internet filters to protect children (ABC)
- Australia's plans to filter Internet under fire (The Age)
- Filtering out the fury: how government tried to gag web censor critics
- Net Filters "required" for all Australians (Ars Technica)
Analysis of the policy
- 1 See Conroy announces mandatory internet filters to protect children, also Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety
- 2 See above.
- 3 See Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety: "...the Current ACMA blacklist under the Howard Government is inadequate. It does not contain enough sites to protect our children from harmful and inappropriate content... Labor's ISP policy will prevent Australian children from from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA..."
- 4 Some analysis of the filtering trial here, see the report itself for more detail.
- 5 As above, "harmful and inappropriate". Also, from this Labor article: "What category of material will be banned under Labor's plan? Labor will require ISPs to filter out R, RC and X rated material as part of a clean feed for home internet connections."
- 6Some info on the budget here
- 7The mandatory black-list - see Computerworld or Conroy's own statements here
- 8For instance, some comments by Internet network engineer Mark Newton can be found here.
- 9Labor MP calls for banning of pro-ana web sites: here or here. Some discussion of euthanasia here.
- 5 Developments in Internet Filtering Technologies and Other Measures for Promoting Online Safety p. 48: "'level of performance degradation… [ranging] from 18% through to 78%'." Also see Education the Best Filter for Young Australians on the Internet "Findings from recent NetAlert research into the use of filters in the broadband environment confirms that accessing the Internet through a content filter at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level leads to a significant reduction in network performance."
- 10 Whirlpool Australian Broadband Survey for 2007
- 11 See above report, also Education 'as effective as internet filtering' or Education the Best Filter for Young Australians on the Internet, see also Developments in Internet Filtering Technologies and Other Measures for Promoting Online Safety for more discussion of Internet risks
- 12 For a description of BT's system, see this Register article. See also ISP "Voluntary" / Mandatory Filtering
Voice your opinion.
By letting policymakers know just what we think of the "clean feed" Internet filter, we can bring about a policy change. You can help by contacting your representatives and spreading the word about this campaign.
Contacting the Minister will let him know that his constituents, the Australian public, are not on board with his impractical plan.
Call the Minister.
There's nothing like a personal phone call to get the message across. Call the minister's office on (03) 9650 1188 and let them know your objections.
Write to the Minister.
A personalised letter to the Minister sends a powerful message: We don't like the policy, and we care. Letters can be sent to the Ministerial office:
Senator Stephen Conroy
Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
Level 4, 4 Treasury Place
Melbourne Vic 3002
If you're not sure what to say, you might wish to use the following as a template:
As an Australian and an internet user, I have serious concerns about your mandatory Internet filtering initiative.
Given the importance your Government has attached to modernising Australia's broadband network, pursuing a policy that can only slow down and increase the costs of home internet access seems misguided at best. Australian households are diverse, and most do not have young children, so mandating a one-size-fits-all clean feed approach will not serve the public well. I don't think it is the Government's role to decide what's appropriate for me or my children, and neither do most Australians.
Given the amount of Internet content available, the Government will never be able to classify it all and filters will always result in an unacceptable level of over-blocking. I feel that the time and money could be spent in better ways both to protect children and improve Australia's digital infrastructure. Australian parents need better education about the risks their children face online. Trying to rid the Internet of adult content is futile, and can only distract from that mission.
Email the Minister.
Although not as effective as a letter or call, every bit helps. Email Senator Conroy at: minister (at) dbcde.gov.au.
Contact your local representative.
Your local Memeber of Parliament is your representative and wants to hear about your concerns. Let your member know that you are unhappy with this policy.
Not sure who to contact? Find your local member's contact information.
Contact your ISP.
Your Internet Service Provider is probably just as worried about this policy as you are, but letting them know your concerns will help in their own efforts.
Not sure how to contact your ISP? This list may help.
Sign the petition.
Although a petition signature is no substitute for personal contact, every bit helps. Sign the petition here.