Conroy and Bolt on filtering

The ABC’s Q&A programme spent about 30 minutes last night pondering Senator Conroy’s mandatory Internet filtering plan… well, idea, because it’s increasingly clear that “plan” is too strong a word. Conroy was, frankly, an embarrassment. To be honest, most of the questions put to him were not especially articulate, but Conroy made a mockery of himself. What disturbs me is that he seems to be fully cognisant  of the reality of public opposition, the technical barriers and even the dangers of encroaching on political freedoms, and yet at the same time he has no inkling that it means anything. Sure, ACMA may have blacklisted a dentist’s website, among a number of other worrying examples, but somehow that’s perfectly alright and acceptable simply because Conroy is able to explain how it happened (something about the Russian mafia, apparently). Forgive me if the idea of a secret blacklist doesn’t fill me with confidence. If said blacklist hadn’t been leaked recently, such errors would never come to light, and so there would be no pressure to correct them.

Andrew Bolt’s remarks on the filter were mostly directed at the Internet libertarian strawman. The argument – not terribly innovative – lays down a few of the worst examples of criminal behaviour and suggests that you can’t allow free access to everything. Possibly true, and utterly beside the point. Mandatory Internet filtering is and should be opposed on the grounds that there just isn’t a workable mechanism, by which I mean one that is effective while being compatible with basic democratic principles. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your filtering criteria are. Computers aren’t smart enough, humans aren’t honest enough and the Internet is just too damn big.

Conroy’s train wreck

The Federal Government’s proposed mandatory Internet filtering scheme has been battered and bruised from all corners of the technical community. Yet Senator Stephen Conroy valiantly battles on. Last year I wrote to the Senator to express my views, and also to the Greens and to my local member, Steve Irons. Conroy eventually replied with a stock letter that amounted to little more than a press release.

Conroy has consistently refused to explain exactly what the filter would actually block (principally child pornography, but also other “unwanted” material), how technical barriers will be overcome, and how the results of the pilot will be assessed. I shall briefly list some other important absurdities for your amusement:

  • nobody stumbles across child pornography by accident (the main premise of the scheme) – you have to be looking for it;
  • nobody knows how to construct a filter that will defeat well-known and widely-available countermeasures;
  • filtering in this case would be done based on a list of banned sites, which is not open to public review but which can be obtained illicitly anyway [pdf];
  • the very fact that a site is filtered prevents anyone from (legitimately) determining whether it should be filtered; and of course
  • filtering  is known to have an enormous impact on network speeds (the more comprehensive the filter, the greater the impact).

I may yet send another letter, but what good it would do I’m not sure.

I now suspect that Conroy (or at least the Labor Party in general) knows all this. They may have actually figured it out some time ago, but decided to fight on to save face. They may actually be relying on the Greens and the Coalition to vote down the scheme in the Senate, so that there doesn’t have to be a public backflip. Doubtless the Greens would oblige, and the Coalition looks like it will as well. Conroy certainly isn’t reaching out for their support, and he probably won’t make much noise when the legislation fails. However, it would be amusing at some level if it passed, because then we’d truly have a fiasco – Conroy would eventually be forced to publicly back down and the concept of Internet filtering would be sunk.