Guest post by Danu Poyner

There was a lively debate about mandatory internet filtering on ABC Radio National’s ‘Australia Talks’ program Tuesday night. While those who have been following the issue closely will recognise much of the conversation, the debate was interesting because it covered new ground in certain areas. Specifically, we got to hear in-depth from some of the people who support mandatory internet filtering, including its self-declared main lobbyist, Child Wise.

Listen to the debate here

The arguments put forward by the scheme’s supporters appear to cover three main points:

  1. Illegal material on the internet is harmful to society and should be blocked.
  2. Censorship standards and content classifications already in place in other media such as TV, radio and print should also be enforced on the internet.
  3. The Government has an obligation to protect children

Taken at face value, these are reasonable points, and were made in a reasonable way by filter supporters Clive Hamilton and Bernadette McMenamin. But there are serious problems with all three arguments, and those problems were laid out equally reasonably by filter opponents Mark Pesce and Dale Clapperton.

Early in the program, Clive Hamilton makes the point that the ACMA blacklist on which the filtering is to be based primarily consists of child pornography and extreme pornography which is illegal. However it’s telling when he says it’s “not a long list compared to what could be on it” (emphasis mine).

Mark Pesce says filtering is a technical solution to a social problem. Dale Clapperton clarifies that no-one is defending the rights of people to access child porn and other illegal material because such a right doesn’t exist, and this point is made often. Mark and Dale argue that we need to think of it as a law enforcement problem, where the solution is to go after human networks rather than technical networks. The point is also made that very little child porn actually exists on the internet, largely because it is illegal.

When it comes to treating the internet the same way as other media, Dale says under the current classification system, anything R or X rated could end up blocked, even if it isn’t illegal. Everyone agrees that beyond illegal material, it’s incredibly subjective to decide what should or shouldn’t be blocked. However, Clive says that as a society we have to make subjective judgments, and implies that he trusts the classifications board to make those judgments. The point is made several times that people can complain to ACMA if they have a problem with a decision.

The idea that ACMA can handle complaints about blocked URLs on a case by case basis is a quaint little picture, but it just shows that supporters of the filter really don’t grasp the sheer scale and speed of the internet. If the lab tests on filtering are anything to go by, we’re talking thousands of incorrectly blocked URLs every second. And given that there are millions of new URLs added to the internet every day, how is the classifications board going to keep up, given that they made 6,449 classification decisions last year?

Bob, a caller from Melbourne, says he can see problems with the filter but would like it to work. He’s particularly concerned about about the safety of internet chat rooms. Dale points out that the filter makes no attempt to work with chat rooms, Skype or instant messaging. Bernadette McMenamin from Childwise says the technical arguments made against the filter are rubbish and mostly red herrings. She says we should get real and see that the Government is trying to do something good!

And there’s the problem. All the arguments for filtering come back to the idea that the aim is to do something good and therefore why kick up such a fuss, even if it’s not perfect? Surely no-one can argue with wanting to do something good! Clive Hamilton trots out a 2003 Newspoll commissioned by his think tank in which 93% of random people surveyed said they’d support internet filtering. But it’s clearly push-polling, just look at the question:

‘Would you support a system which automatically filtered out internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise?’

Of course people would support that. I’d support that. As Mark Pesce says, parents have a natural desire to want to tame the wildness of the internet for their children. But such a magical system simply doesn’t exist. And even if it did, bear in mind that Bernadette McMenamin says she believes that the ISP filtering of illegal material will reduce access to child pornography by at least 30-40%.

Did you catch that? That was a direct quote from Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of Childwise, which she herself says is the main lobbyist for internet filtering. Her goal is that it will reduce access to child pornography by 30-40%. That’s what’s being presented as the best case scenario. That’s what all of this is for. And that’s not some kind of wishful thinking statistic that Bernadette made up on the spot. Listen to the program from around the 42 minute mark. Here’s what she says:

“The people who view child pornography on the internet range in their nature and type. There are your hardened pedophiles, those that will network regardless of filters, there are those that are curious, there are those that are looking for a taboo, there are those that are lonely that escalate from watching porn into child porn. So you cannot categorise them into one. There’s been lots of research around brain mapping and typology of child pornographers. You cannot just put them into the hardened child sex offenders role because those guys can’t be changed and they’re not going to be restricted by filters, but those who are going to be restricted by filters are the ones who are curious, the ones who are looking for these images through the commercial websites and my police advisors etc tell me that 30 to 40% of child pornography on the internet is available through the commercial and known child pornography websites and they can be blocked. It’s not removing it, but it’s reducing it.”

So the filter’s main lobbyist is happy to admit that filtering won’t stop hardened child sex offenders, but will deter the curious by blocking commercial child porn sites that are known to the police. In which case, wouldn’t all this time and money be better spent targeting those sites and getting them taken down, rather than dealing with the problem by imposing expensive, inaccurate censorship on every Australian through a massive new national bureaucracy that is inherently prone to misuse?

We can all support the reduction and prevention of child pornography. But let’s approach it in a way that will actually work. A magical filter is a nice idea, but it doesn’t exist. The ‘clean feed’ is the red herring. Hopefully the Government’s live trials will give it the evidence it needs to back out of the ridiculous corner it’s painted itself into and instead pursue a policy direction that might actually achieve what its supporters want it to.

Danu Poyner is a technology tutor, geek for hire and aspiring writer. He blogs on whatever is on his mind at and is currently writing a book for non-geeks about understanding technology called ‘The Digital Migrant’.