Sunday, August 12, 2007

Internet Lights

John Howard’s announcement of a $189 million Internet filter program must be challenged on a range of grounds. Is it an appropriate role for government? Will we be getting value for money? Is it practicable? Who will control the regulators?

From a conservative government, it is a turn around from the rhetoric of the past. Isn’t this the kind of socialism we expect from Rudd’s mob? Individuals should make decisions and pay for matters related to personal privacy and family values. If parents want to buy filters shouldn’t the market provide them. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for something that is voluntary and private?

How many new teachers or police would $189 million pay for? 2500? 3000? Perhaps it is too cynical to ask how much is new money given the expenditure on the current NetAlert program. Is this a re-badging of NetAlert with some free software thrown in? Is it just another vote buying exercise?

The effectiveness of the software must be queried. The software being promised hasn’t even been finished yet. Will it block sites with particular words? This could cut off access to online dictionaries, encyclopaedia, literature and academic papers amongst a long list of important places that may contain the nominated offensive vocabulary. About five years ago I was teaching ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with Year 12 students when a key, innocuous website was blocked by the Northern Territory Education Department regulators who turned out to be in California. Perhaps we’ll ban all chat and social networking sites. Who knows what people might write.

More bizarre is how it might deal with images? Goodbye to Michelangelo’s David! Will flickr and other photo services be cut? Do we stop all video access? At least we would be protected from government announcements on YouTube and political websites and blogs like Kevin07. If you think this is joke, my political blog, Labor View from Broome, has been blocked by the Victorian Education department and the Chinese. Perhaps they were offended by the post ‘Beat me! Beat me!’ which showed Mark Vaile and Kerri-anne Kennerley whipcracking together. Apparently in Victoria they block servers not just sites. So much for selective targeting. Google who own might be interested in that! There are many obscenities on the Web. Fast food and barbie ads, for instance. What about images of violence, war and starvation?

I almost forgot audio. How will they stop offending song lyrics and other sound files? What about the kinds of services offered now by telephone which grace the classifieds in our local papers?

Doubtless there will be options to turn the filter on and off so that adults can use the Internet. This will inevitably lead to a competition to develop a hack to get around the censors. Teenagers will know how to get around the filter within a week or find computers without the blockers. Censorship doesn’t stop curiosity, it encourages it. Blockers may help against the worst aspects of the Web but they are not a substitute for the kind of openness and values that help young people to deal with modern media.

The PM’s media release says that we will be able to block websites selected by the Australian Internet regulators. Who are these regulators? What criteria and guidelines will they use? Will their responsibilities be confined to pornography? Who will oversee our guardians? Federal Ministers like Kevin Andrews? Will the regulators decisions be subject to appeal? Will we even be able to find out who is censoring our websites and blogs without going through expensive freedom of information processes?

We must question the cost and effectiveness of this latest vote grabber, which has not been thought through properly. The Minister for Communications Helen Coonan has previously rejected a similar idea "Clean Feed" from Labor.

Just as light cigarette filters didn’t stop cancer, we cannot filter out all the evil aspects of modern society. Finding solutions to an increasingly confronting world will not be as easy as clicking a mouse.

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