Australia Edges Us Towards the Digital Dark Ages
Published 10:33, 15 December 09
Last week, on my opendotdotdot blog, I was praising the Australian government for its moves to open up its data. I was rapidly – and rightly – taken to task in the comments for failing to mention that government's efforts to impose direct, low-level censorship on the country's Internet feed.
Although I was aware of these moves, I wasn't quite up to date on their progress. It seems that things have moved far and fast:
The Australian Government today announced further details of its approach to improve safety on the internet for Australian families.
The Government’s approach to cyber-safety has been informed by the Government’s trial of internet filtering and extensive industry feedback about the most appropriate way to improve safety online.
The cyber-safety measures announced today include:
1.Introduction of mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused Classification (RC) –rated content.
2.A grants program to encourage the introduction of optional filtering by Internet Service Providers, to block additional content as requested by households.
3.An expansion of the cyber-safety outreach program run by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Cyber-Safety Online Helpline – to improve education and awareness of online safety.
As you will notice, the Australian government justifies the moves by employing that tired old fallback of “protecting families” online. This is a kind of corollary to Godwin's law: as soon as “the children” are invoked by politicians in the context of the Internet, you know that they don't have any substantive arguments to support their arguments.
Providing families with effective options to screen out unsuitable material is of course important, and these already exist. For example, search engines allow a wide range of filtering of their results and there are various desktop programs that offer further blocks on material. That's on top of ever-increasing legislation aimed at outlawing and taking down certain kinds of content permanently. So bringing in this extremely heavy-handed approach is not necessary. Not only that, it's counter-productive, because there are a major problems with the Australian proposal.
The first is that it won't actually stop people accessing illegal or unsuitable content. As fast as sites and IP addresses are blocked, others will pop up in an online arms race that is unwinnable by leaden-footed bureaucracy.
Another issue is that by providing a compulsory filtering of the feed, the Australian government could easily lull parents into a false sense of security, and actually *increase* the risk of children being exposed to dangerous material. As with all kinds of online dangers, the best protection is for parents to be actively involved in the children's exploration of that world, and it's foolish to send out the message that the government is now “tackling” this problem, because many people will draw the inevitable conclusion that they don't need to worry about the issue any more.
Similarly, by focussing on blocking its own nationals, the Australian government wastes energies that could be better spent addressing the real problem: the fact that this material exists in the first place. By filtering the feed, the message is sent to other, less interventionist governments in countries where illegal content is hosted that they don't really need to bother sorting out their problems since all the bad stuff will be blocked at the other end. Far better to increase efforts to get these sites shut down wherever they are through meaningful international cooperation, since that also addresses the problem of them changing names and IP addresses to avoid the blacklist.
A deeper danger is that once a blacklist is in place, it is bound to make mistakes. This has already happened during the trials, and if it is rolled out on a larger scale, there are bound to be more instances of sites being blocked in error. Worse, once in place, the blacklist makes it trivially easy for the government concerned to block *any* content that it defines as unsuitable. Indeed, we've already had a preview of what may happen earlier this year:
The Australian communications regulator says it will fine people who hyperlink to sites on its blacklist, which has been further expanded to include several pages on the anonymous whistleblower site Wikileaks.
Wikileaks was added to the blacklist for publishing a leaked document containing Denmark's list of banned websites.
The move by the Australian Communications and Media Authority comes after it threatened the host of online broadband discussion forum Whirlpool last week with a $11,000-a-day fine over a link published in its forum to another page blacklisted by ACMA - an anti-abortion website.
ACMA's blacklist does not have a significant impact on web browsing by Australians today but sites contained on it will be blocked for everyone if the Federal Government implements its mandatory internet filtering censorship scheme.
Wikileaks has shown itself a fearless opponent of censorship, and it will probably be one of the first casualties of Australia's censorship system. Moreover, Australia is certainly not alone is wishing to gag that awkward site with its highly embarrassing revelations: there have been requests in the US to “probe” Wikileaks, and I'm sure that quite a few nominally “liberal” Western governments would love to do something rather more permanent than just probing it.
Meanwhile, countries like China can quite rightly point to the hypocrisy of the West that criticises the “Great Firewall of China” while quietly building their own local versions. As a result, the West loses what little moral high ground it once had, and becomes even less respected and powerful around the world.
All-in-all, then, this is really bad news, and represents a further step by governments around the world to control this troublesome newcomer. Unfortunately, we can expect things to get a lot worse before they get better.