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
- Online fraud
- Illegal contact
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
- 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.