Sunday, October 26, 2008

Alternatives to filtering Australia's Internet

It's sad to see that the headlines about Australia around the world at the moment are things like "Australia Joins China In Censoring The Internet".

The policy dates back to the previous Howard government but has been carried over to the current administration. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) prepared an excellent report on digital filtering developments which outlines the pros and cons of filtering as an approach.

My reading of that report was that we should not go down this track, but that's not how the government apparently reads it.

The objective of all this, quoting then Minister Helen Coonan, is to "protect consumers, including minors, who access content on the Internet".

From the body of the report, we consumers are to be protected from:

  • Illegal material

  • Inappropriate material

  • Viruses

  • Spam

  • Online fraud

  • Illegal contact

  • Cyber-bullying

The report finds that aside from "Illegal material", and "Inappropriate material", filtering technologies have "no substantial effect" on any of the other areas.

As I see it, the drawbacks of mandatory internet filtering are:

  • It doesn't work well enough

  • Good material is inadvertently blocked

  • It will cost us all money

  • It will slow down the internet in Australia

  • It infringes my right to view things that others might see as inappropriate

  • It could easily be used for censorship

  • It will give parents and guardians a false sense of security

I would add that while filtering isn't perfect now, it will get less effective over time as purveyors of this material will learn how to get around the filters much as spammers have constantly evolved their techniques to evade mail filters.


  • Require operating systems to be more secure

  • Require content to be labelled honestly

  • Education

  • Get over it

Let me expand on those:

Require operating systems to be more secure

People who run windows have often reported to me that the thing they find most distressing about using the internet is when their computer starts displaying unwanted pop-up windows displaying pornography.

This is not the fault of "the internet" but rather that their computer operating system has been infected with a virus that lurks in the background and then displays these windows presumably in an attempt to pervert the user.

Let's address the problem here, older versions of Windows and Internet Explorer were insecure. The maker should takes responsibility for this.

Require content to be labelled honestly

Create a top level domain .sex or something that clearly labels what the content is. We do this for films and now games. I understand that it actually helped game sales allowing consumers to more easily find what they want.

While this won't prevent publishers who purvey their material by stealth (a good example is the viruses my kids used to get while searching for "free games"), at least it will reduce the amount of inappropriate material purely in the .com domain.

Alastair disagrees with this approach, and I take the point that a top level domain is just a simplistic content classification system however I feel that there should be some standard way to label content.


It doesn't matter what we do, our kids will eventually see material we would rather they didn't. When I was very young someone handed me "the little red school book".

Children need to know that the world has some dark places in it and just because they see something weird it doesn't mean that all adults are perverse.

There's some pretty whacky stuff in the local library too.

Get over it

It's a new world. We have unprecedented access to information, for good and bad. I would argue that the good effects massively outweigh the bad.

Filtering just creates an environment where material is presented by stealth rather than in a straight forward way.


I just wish we could be seen as a country leading in broadband speed, wireless access, and innovation.


The ABC Radio National "Media Report" program covered this story very informatively. Here's the transcript.


Anonymous said...

I vote for the last two, education and getting over the whole darn thing.

I just can't see honest content representation happening any time soon. Enforcement would be next to impossible and rating systems are a complete failure, too easy to subvert for someone's agenda - for example my website got itself rated as "supporting terrorist causes" with a leading web filtering system because it contains technical information about display pyrotechnics!

I'd love OSes to be secure, but that will always be work-in-progress, humans make mistakes and most of the remaining security problems are non-trivial interactions that are very complex to even recognise. At least we can say the situation has improved enormously over the years, but my mail server still gets hundreds of thousands of connections daily from zombie nets peddling their junk. It seems strange that these organised crime lead zombie rings can't be attacked more directly. Through my dynamic DNS service I see lots of this kind of activity, I've been cooperating with law enforcement to track and kill zombie nets, but they never seem to take out the actual people involved, just the "innocent" average net-user with a compromised machine. Seems to me some well instrumented, sufficiently large honeypots would allow pretty good determination of those responsible. Of course the key ingredient isn't technical at all; international cooperation.

Lets get down to what this is all about: The internet is no more a substitute parent than television is.

Christopher said...

I couldn't agree more with everything you said! On the TLD, I've particularly thought this to be a good idea.