A thought article on Stephen Conroys internet filter and whether or not Australia should truly engage with it.
I am typically very wary of venturing into the extremes of political activism and voicing concerns in relation to Governmental policy. Socially, the discussion of political issues is typically a facet of ones personal life which — in it’s infancy — draws deep parallels to that of ones parents — and, I would certainly hope, as one ages — develops into a personal and individual understanding of the policies and legislative implementations affecting Australians now and into the future.
By admission — I am a swing voter. I don’t vote on haircuts, or a politicians demeanor, or even the shirt, jacket, tie or skirt combinations that seem to be the collective extension of some voters opinions on political parties in Australia today. Indeed, the beauty of Australia is that indeed some people can vote on these aspects and while I may fervently disagree with such uneducated and uncaring notions — it’s fantastic that in our free democratic society — a person can express their individual rights to vote how they like and on what basis. Too many wars have been fought to save this democratic right and cast it aside carelessly. Myself — I choose to actually read the policies and legislative instruments that each party is attempting to impose on our Country and determine whether — in my opinion — this is truly going to shape the path forward for Australia now and into the future.
Indeed, this genuine care for our country is why this post has arisen.
For long time readers of this blog — it’s undoubtedly evident that I am a person who is deeply passionate about Technology, Law and the Internet. This passion is almost now 12 years strong and continues to grow as I and a small team of developers — develop our own technology — and as I continue to explore the legislative instruments which govern intellectual property in both Australia and abroad. The truth is — all Australian’s should be concerned about the growth of technology — the opportunities and risks it presents to our society and the increasingly reliance that our country places on it’s unfettered dominance. The future of technology holds increasing promise — from medical advances, to the streamlining of national security, to social and gaming endeavors — technology is becoming an ever increasing part of our lives.
Before my scathing criticism of this Senator’s supposed endeavor begins — it’s useful to turn your mind back just 10 years to the start of the new millennium — the year of 2000. Indeed, the world was ‘apparently’ going to end on the stroke of midnight on December 31st 1999 due to the Millennium Bug or Y2k. Yes, there was a run on funds in banks and huge increases in the purchasing of non-perishable food items — a common site both domestically and around the world. The result? No big bang — albeit due to extremely hard work of many companies (and indeed many overpriced contractors) and the problem that was the Y2K bug dissipated in the end.
In the Year 2000 you were undoubtedly using a Nokia mobile phone — the dominant mobile phone of choice at the time — and were sending text-messages at a ridiculous charge out rate as the dominance of Generation Y’ers took hold. You were probably also searching the Internet using Alta-vista or Yahoo — the super powers of the Internet at the time — and checking your email on Hotmail. No doubt — the operating system your PC was running on was Windows 98 or 2000 (around February of 2000). If you were really hip — you might have even stumbled onto a Mac computer — the iMac G3. Yes, the world of technology in Australia was at a tipping point.
Of course, to now look at the socially-connected-information-rich-mobile-driven-flat-screen-gaming society of Australia today — you can only smile in awe. Google has risen to dominate the Internet in just 10 short years and bring information to the masses in ways which was never — perhaps even conceptually — thought possible. The collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2000 was the lowest point for technology at the turn of the millennium — driven by hyper-inflated valuations and unsustainable business models. In the post-dot-com era — the rise and rise of the internet has accelerated technologies advanced in unprecedented ways. From Google Search, to Skype, to Facebook, to Youtube, to Wikiepdia, to Twitter and beyond — you can now share with the world your laughter, tears, thoughts, dreams, opinions and information. This is core aspect of the socially connected world we now live in — you — yes, you — have the right to do as you please on the Internet. To talk about what you like, to dream about what you like, to create what you like, and to access content which is within the permissible realms of the law. It is my belief that you should also be allowed to discuss, talk and speak about issues which also fall outside it — this is fundamental aspect of Australian society.
This is also the definition of a true democratic society.
The structure of the political system in our country — namely, the separation of powers — is founded on the notions that we cannot become an autocratic society because our legislative, judicial and administrative arms are separate. This founding basis cannot and should not be forgotten — now or into the future. Yet, it is my strong belief — that Senator Stephen Conroy’s plan to filter the Internet in Australia reeks of political ineptitude, misunderstanding and a genuine reduction of democratic values our country has long been founded on and holds so dear. Indeed, as a previous political heavyweight once stated (and one whose policies I did not always agree with)
Australia is not the kind of country where you would feel comfortable if you were opposed to democracy, parliamentary law, independent courts and so I would say to people who don’t feel comfortable with those values there might be other countries where they’d feel more comfortable with their own values or beliefs — Peter Costello
The reality is — a reduction of democratic values leads to a reduction of ones liberties and any reduction in the right to free speech is arguably a reduction of theses rights (enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights). The cornerstone — and indeed the core objective of the Internet Filter proposed by Senator Conroy is stated as
ISP filtering is a key component of the Australian Government’s cyber-safety plan. Filtering of online material at the ISP level reflects the view that ISPs should take some responsibility for enabling the blocking of such content on the internet.
introduce legislative amendments to require all ISPs in Australia to use ISP‑level filtering to block overseas hosted Refused Classification (RC) material on the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) RC Content list.
The fly in the ointment in this statement is that the Refused Classification (RC) list is not available to the general public and the legislative amendments proposed are broadly defined and wholly encompassing. That is, neither you or I would even know of the sites being blocked, flagged to be blocked or those which are now unblocked. There is no question — it would act in part — like the Great Firewall of China. To illustrate just how encompassing the legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 may be — if website A was hacked and RC classification was shoved on the site — and a competitor who runs website B then decided to complain about such material, then Website A would undoubtedly hit the governments blacklist. No questions. No appeal process. No information passed to rectify the problem. Access to Australian’s — and indeed me — would ‘vanish’. The transparency and procedural fairness of the proposed amendments are entirely non-existent — natural justice is in no way served.
Relevantly, to suggest in any manner, that I object to the protection of children online, is nonsensical. There is no doubt that children need greater protection online than teenagers and adults (of course, this is arguable as well given the somewhat idiotic tendencies of the two). But the manner and mode in which Senator Conroy’s plan is being structured is built to fail. Those who seek to abuse systems are often those who seek to abuse the foundations on which they are built. Such logic infers that the very nature of filters can be by-passed through proxy cloaking — or even more simply, purchasing a server in the USA and accessing content from it — in addition to the plethora of additional methodologies available to accessing material through VPN’s and even extra-jurisdictional VPN’s in Eastern-European countries who have no restrictions or filtering on Internet content.
Even an idiot could search Google for “Proxy Servers” or “Virtual Private Networks” and find a range of products to provide them connections to computers located in other countries — a simple way to by-pass any filtering system. The reality is the filter uses a basic system of IP — Internet Protocol Address — filtering. That is, any time you connect to the Internet in Australia through your Internet Service Provider — you are provided with an IP Address. For example, a well known block of IP addresses in Australia are within an approximate range of 60.220.XXX.XXX to 60.250.XXX.XXX and accurate lists of such ranges are freely available by companies such as MaxMind or IP2Location. You can check you IP address now by simply visiting — whatismyip.org — and you’ll see your unique address. The proposed filter basically takes all IP Address’ at the ISP level — which ensures they are Australian — and applies the filtering system to them on a URL basis. Change your IP address to one located in an extra-jurisdictional country — America, Sweden, Russia etc — and you immediately bypass any filtering system because the connection your ISP ‘sees’ is one which is not prohibited. Your ISP thinks you are just accessing a server in another country and then you are free to access whatever you want — whenever you want it — making the whole system fundamentally flawed.
The unfathomable truth is that those who wish to view content will educate themselves on ways in which they can access it. Logic suggests that such approaches should be mirrored to those who do not wish to access it. Are we so ignorant to forget so quickly what Nelson Mandella — one of the greatest proponents of democracy in the free-world — stated
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
and yet our society is so quick to forget it. The protection of children online stems from a pure and realistic education of the dangers that lurk online and the consequential horrors that can result. The young inquisitive mind is evidently going to explore the internet and should be allowed too. The domain of such exploration should fall on the parents of the child and simple strategies such as requiring a child to access the internet in an open and transparent environment would go a very long way to solving this problem. Transparency is what sets the world free while the cloak of secrecy merely seeks to suffocate societal advance.
To this date, I struggle — given the 174 submissions provided to the Australian Media and Communication Authority — that the plan is still attempting to be tabled in parliament. Why ask for submissions from some of the smartest technologies companies in the country if you are simply going to ignore them? The most prominent of the submissions to the AMCA are — for example — from Google — a strong opponent of the plan. Indeed, as Google highlight on Pages 3 and 4 — the most effective tools to combat Online Safety are:
- Search and Software Tools
- Legislative empowerment of Law Enforcement Agencies
Evidently, it is through the promotion of these three items which would allow more effective ‘Filtering’ to take place than any ISP level architecture. A simple and effective methodology would be to propose legislative amendments to Federal and State law enforcement agencies to increase sentence terms and pecuniary penalties for those found violating the law in relation to child pornography material. Longer sentence terms are an effective measure which categorically increase the ‘core risk’ to those who wish to engage in the dissemination and viewing of such abhorrent material.
The reality of Internet filtering is that the problem is not a singularly-based jurisdictional issue — blocking content here does not mean the content does not exist. The content very still much resides on a server — somewhere on the planet and is therefore accessible. The key issue is how such content is found by those looking for it, and you can rest assured that the networks built around repulsive material are not only based on message boards, but on skype and other real-time technical mechanisms — a facet which cannot be stopped by any means of ‘URL Filtering’. Indeed, the problem is multi-faceted and passes through many vertical and horizontal channels. This is elegantly framed in Article 1(3) of the United Nations Charter — which Australia is a signatory of — which articulates that the purpose of the UN is
To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
While, it is universally and realistically accepted, that any attempt to achieve a resolution through the United Nations would take around (lets say) 10 years to achieve given the speed at which veto powers are directed. The better and more realistic approach is to create bi-and-multilateral agreements with our neighbours in relation to the internet content and standardise criminal and pecuniary enforcement in respect to the accessibility and dissemination of such content. Introducing a filter, as Senator Conroy proposes, with a wide legislative scope — does not in any way seek to advance the democratic society we live in and does not make the content “disappear” — the perceived intended aim. A wide filter also will undoubtedly “catch” a significant amount of content which is not offensive at all but which may have been mistakingly added to the list or which the Administrative Delegate holds personal views upon.
Indeed, the right to access information is a fundamental right and promotes discussion, debate and indeed increases transparency across all sectors of our society. The reduction of such transparency does not seek to promote intelligent debate as much as it restricts it. Of course, all of the above has not even touched on the technical nuances that such a plan creates. Indeed, the own Technical Pilot conducted by the Government — on which the majority of it’s proposed amendments are based — omitted (as Google highlights on Page 10)
- Testing a blacklist of up to 10,000 urls
- Testing a representative cross section of ISPs
- Testing new technologies such as IPv6
- Gathering the costs of filtering
Evidently, it seems that the Government has taken the approach of — “Let’s try 100 sites … oh that works — now lets filter the Internet’. Relevantly, such an approach is entirely absurd and fails to demonstrate the case for Internet Filtering. It is perhaps this point which is so illogically debated. The Government has not even satisfied the relevant testing requirements in relation to Internet Filtering and their attempt to impose mandatory filtering on all ISP’s in Australia is untested on a large strategic rollout (look at the national insulation scheme as evidence of this). This begs the question — to what detriment will Internet filtering place on the speed of your Internet connection ? The large number of submissions tendered to the ACMA suggest a significant reduction due to the increase processing and “checking” (aka filtering) when accessing content.
Putting aside the long number of additional technical issues I could discuss (given the length of this post already) — the key and perhaps most important point is — the Internet is dynamic. Any proposed websites which are banned will be reviewed and a relevant case must be prepared by the ACMA Administrative Delegate in relation to whether the site should be added to any constructed blacklist. Indeed, as soon as a site becomes inaccessible — those who wish to access the site could be simply contact the site owners, ask them to replicate the site onto another URL, on another server, with another IP address in a matter of seconds (made even easier by the prominence of virtualization technology) and the so called “filter” is now useless again. There will be countless processes such as this one which could take place and indeed even more sophisicated methodologies to trancend the ‘boundaries’ of internet filtering.
In conclusion, your access to the Internet should be open and free within the bounds of the law. If your access extends outside those boundaries — increased legislative power should be provided to those relevant agencies to prosecute your actions and the judicial arm should serve strong sentences as a result. This should of course, be coupled with education and software restrictions, which ensure that children are in no way abused when accessing the Internet. Parent accountability also plays a significant role in a child’s experience on the Internet and is perhaps an often too forgotten aspect. Fundamentally, the Internet is designed as a resource to engage in discussion and debate, to view content, to share experiences and enrich your life with information — it is not a medium which should be restricted by a closed and ambigous filter with no procedural transparency and which can be easily abused by an overzealous Government — or individual Government official — in determining which content should be viewed by it’s populous.
Write letters, vote against Senator Conroy, contact your local Minister — voice your concern. These legislative amendments must not be enacted or content on the Internet as you know will change in Australia forever. It is unquestionable that through knowledge one grows power, and the Internet provides that to all citizens in Australia — regardless of political standing, religion or belief. Legislation should not be enacted to increase ambiguity — more transparency is needed in our country — not less. There is no question — the future generations of Australian depend on us.
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