Stilgherrian writes now that speed issues with filtering are out of the way (see ARN’s article about ISPs involved in the trial giving ‘filters the technical greenlight’), ‘come September the debate will be about whether internet filtering “works” or not’. He’s right and therein lies the problem: Senator Conroy hasn’t defined what works.
Now anecdotes are not evidence. The absence of evidence of problems is not evidence of absence — particularly when some ISPs are trialling the technology with as few as 15 users. But this is politics, not science. It puts the kibosh on GetUp!’s original anti-filter campaign, which focused on the potential for filters to slow our internet connections.
Now as Crikey reported in April, before we can say, “It works”, we need to define what “It” is. We have to define the target, i.e. what we intend to block. And we have to define the accuracy, i.e. how much incorrect blocking or failure to block we, as a society, will accept.
On the question of accuracy, Senator Conroy steadfastly refuses to provide a definition. Witness this exchange with Triple J’s Kate O’Toole from 7 April:
O’TOOLE: So if the trial does fail, and you’ve got to be open to that in a trial…
CONROY: We’ve said we’d be evidence-based.
O’TOOLE: …you’re going to abandon the…?
CONROY: We’ve said if the trial shows that this cannot be done, then we won’t do it.
O’TOOLE: And what’s the definition of “cannot be done”? What would be the acceptable amount to slow the internet down?
CONROY: Well now you’re asking me to pre-empt the outcome of the trial.
O’TOOLE: No no no, I’m not. You’ve got to have a … before you start the trial you’ve got to have an understanding of what is, what’s a pass and a fail, like you’ve got to be able to measure … you can’t sort of wait until the trial finishes and then look back and decide how you’re going to measure the outcome.
CONROY: Well actually that’s how you conduct a trial. You wait to see what the result is and then you make a decision based on the result. If the trial shows it cannot be done without slowing the internet down, then we will not do it. But if the trial comes back and says it can be done, then we will go down the path of blocking the RC, and we will look at how it’s possible for parents to be given a choice, a menu of options, that they can block their children from accessing.
O’TOOLE: So do you have a rate of over-blocking in mind that would be unacceptable?
CONROY: Well as I’ve said, let’s wait to see what the trial shows us.
O’TOOLE: And then you’ll put the goal posts up afterwards?
CONROY: As I said, you want to pre-empt the trial, then we’re happy to wait to see what the trial comes back to us with. Perfectly happy.
You may recall that a Freedom of Information request also confirmed that no success criteria has been set for the filtering pilot.
Whether the trial is accurate has never been important to the government. There is also little comfort to be had when one of the ISPs participating in trial, Webshield, already filters customers Internet access and a slowdown may not be noticed.
Others ISPs participating have said they may offer filtering as a service after the trial, regardless of whether the government makes it mandatory. It’s no stretch to imagine the equipment they use will be the equipment they used in the trial and badmouthing it now wouldn’t exactly make good business sense, would it?
Associate professor at the University of Sydney and no stranger to this debate, Bjorn Landfeldt, told ARN today that ‘while large telcos had the staff and capital required to manage a compulsory blacklist, smaller ISPs probably would not’.
One of my first posts on this blog pointed to a Howard-era report which echoed the same thing.
Landfeldt to ARN:
“Australia has got a very heavy, long tail of very small ISPs. For all those ISPs, every dollar they have to spend and every minute they have to spend on something other than their core business is potentially very damaging for their business,” he said.
“I would be surprised and interested to find out whether there are any solutions available that could be integrated and managed and run by the small players without any major impact.”
Landfeldt also that the small number of customers that took part in some of the trials negated the usefulness of any data gathered during the trial.
“If you only have 15 people that opted into the trial, I don’t know what you’d get out of that,” he said. “The burden of running the filter would be absolutely negligible.”
“I believe the trial is fairly futile because we know that it can be done,” he said.
That’s debatable; whether it works isn’t. With countless legal websites blocked and the certainity of more to come, the protection of children online untouched and the financial risk to small businesses if their websites are unintentionally blocked, we all know the answer is no, it doesn’t work.