[LINK] RFC: Filtering Pornography on the Internet

Tom Worthington tomw2 at ozemail.com.au
Tue Mar 18 05:48:55 EST 2003

This is to request comments and suggestions for 700 words on "filtering 
pornography on the Internet", for ABC Radio National's Perspective program 

This segment is meant to be topical, and judging by previous talks, self 
aggrandised and a bit academic. My draft below tries to do that without 
expressing much of an opinion. There is of course no guarantee any of this 
will ever get to air:

Filtering Pornography on the Internet: Imperfect by Necessity

By Tom Worthington FACS <http://www.tomw.net.au/>

Understanding the Internet is an exercise in juggling layers of metaphor. A 
good analogy does help understanding, but taken too literally this limits 
progress. Electronic mail isn't really mail, the Internet is not a 
telephone network, and the web is not a library without paper. Ways of 
dealing with pornography developed for paper publishing, broadcasting and 
the post can be usefully adapted to the Internet, but have their limits. 
Ways to censor information in a democracy must, of necessity, be imperfect.

In in 1999 the Australian Computer Society made me a Fellow of the society 
for my contribution to the development of public Internet policy in 
Australia. This seemed a high honour for trying to be as unoriginal as 
possible. As a public servant I had realised that bureaucracies didn't like 
doing things for the first time. So it seemed the best way to get the 
Internet and web used in Government was to make it seem not new, just an 
adaption of something old.

Using the "not new" approach I wrote the Defence Department's first 
Internet policy from a document I found in the archives on the proper use 
of long distance telephone calls. By loading a copy of this old policy into 
my word processor, I found replacing "telephone" with "Internet" produced a 
plausible new policy. This worked so well I spent the next few years doing 
essentially the same thing for Internet policy in government and for the 

As detailed in my book Net Traveller, in 1994 Roger Clarke, proposed that 
we write some policy for the Australian Computer Society, on the public 
interest in network services. At this time we were not even sure if the 
term "Internet" was a good one and spent much of the effort on metaphors to 
do with the "Information Superhighway", the infobahn, The Net, the Matrix, 
`the Web', and the Public Electronic Library. Of these terms "The Internet" 
and "the Web" flourished, some vanished along with their technologies and 
others, such as "Public Electronic Library" became so ubiquitous that a 
term was no longer needed. In 1994 the idea that anyone could walk in their 
local library and search millions of documents in a global electronic 
system was science fiction, in 2003 it is a commonplace library function.

 From the first we recognised that adaptation of existing laws to deal with 
the new networked environment would be needed. But no radical new laws 
should be needed, just some balancing of the  interests of originators of 
data and services, and users of data and services. Some licensing might be 

In 1995 I wrote an ACS's initial submission to a Government inquiry on 
Internet regulation  <http://www.tomw.net.au/sensub1.html> and later gave 
evidence at public hearings. The revolutionary aspect of the ACS's 
submission was not on how the Internet could (or could not) be regulated, 
but how the submission was prepared and how it proposed the results of the 
inquiry be disseminated. The Internet was used to solicit contributions 
from those interested, to help form the ACS submission and the Senate was 
asked to provide the results of its deliberations via the Internet. While 
in 2003 this sounds like routine information distribution, in the mid 1990 
it was radical stuff. The inquiry process, was studied in detail by Dr. 
Peter Chen for his 2000 
thesis  <http://eprints.unimelb.edu.au/archive/00000240/> making this the 
first most studied parliamentary process of the Internet age.

Almost all those who responded to my request for comment on Internet 
regulation argued that strict Internet censorship was not feasible. But a 
significant number when on, after saying how useful the Internet was, to 
say something like "but I am worried about what my children will see". The 
result of the Senate inquiry was a good political compromise, with 
legislation which tried to blend existing approaches to broadcasting and 
print censorship to the new technology. The result was a political success, 
in that no one was particularly happy with the outcome, but the Parliament 
had been seen to have done as much as it could. We now have a  community 
education program, industry codes of conduct, information to assist 
parents, research on the effectiveness of filtering software, a process for 
complaints and international liaison with other governments on overseas 
based material.

Australia is in advance of similar wester liberal democracies in the 
regulation of Internet content. Civil libertarians will (and have) 
complained that the complaints process is overly secretive and these at the 
other end of the spectrum will complain that more hard regulation is 
needed.  Industry can do more by helping parents who want to use filtering 
software. Research has shown that the filtering software works reasonably 
well, but could be made easier to use. The Government can continue to fund 
NetAlert, the a non profit organisation, which provides advice to the 
community <http://www.netalert.net.au/>.

However, without changing human nature or abandoning our democracy, there 
is little more the government can do. Ultimately the burden of protecting 
children from objectionable material rests with their parents and other 
guardians. Filtering software and technologies can assist, but not replace 
parental supervision.


Tom Worthington FACS tom.worthington at tomw.net.au Ph: 0419 496150
Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd ABN: 17 088 714 309
http://www.tomw.net.au PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617
Visiting Fellow, Computer Science, Australian National University
Publications Director, Australian Computer Society

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