[LINK] Gillard backs internet filter - did we "let it happen"?

Robin Whittle rw at firstpr.com.au
Thu Jul 8 15:07:56 AEST 2010

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your reply.

I think we need to try to enlighten the general public and the
politicians that the basis of this censorship plan:

  Internet ~= WWW  ~= books, magazines, videos etc.

is dangerously simplistic.

WWW is not just a mass media, broadcast, one-to-many communications
system - although it can perform similar functions.  Unlike radio and
TV, it doesn't occupy a limited public resource - RF spectrum.
Unlike a shop, it doesn't put goods in view of anyone who walks in,
or passes by - including children.

    BTW, I would support regulations regarding outdoor advertising
    and shop display of quite a wide range of material which is
    disturbing due to its sexual, violent or grotesque nature.  This
    is partly for people in general, but especially for the benefit
    of children.  With an uncensored Internet, and with specialised
    shops and areas where children are not allowed, I think this
    would not constitute a significant restriction on adult

The Net is a two-way communication system, and a great deal of what
people do involves contributing to the material on servers - and so
communicating with other individuals.  Web forums are extraordinarily
popular and can be pivotal for individual people learning about
themselves, solving their medical and other problems, and generally
learning about and contributing to the lives of others.  Web forums
can have pretty wide-ranging discussion - and so a forum could easily
wind up on the banned list due to a small subset of the discussions
being deemed "RC".

The filter could be extended to other modes than HTTP and HTTPS
sites, but even if it isn't, I think we need to debate the filter in
terms of its likeness to:

  1 - Destroying letters sent to or from Australian and overseas
      addresses which are on a banned list.

  2 - Preventing people from communicating in any way with other
      individuals or groups of individuals.  This is particularly the
      case with forum sites, and sites which archive mailing lists.

  3 - Preventing calls from or two a banned list of Australian and
      overseas telephone numbers.

  4 - Banning such things even if only a fraction of the banned
      communications was deemed to be RC.

Also, the idea that this censorship is just about stopping access to
child porn needs to be challenged, as it frequently is.

The full list of criteria for RC covers many sorts of things - and to
think that we as taxpayers and ISP customers will pay for a secret,
bureaucrat-decided, list of blocks . . . .

Also, the government could easily extend the current plan to
criminalise anything which has the effect of bypassing the filter.
So that would criminalise the actions of many search engines, which
can return the name and URL of banned sites, along with small or
complete sets of text and graphics.

You wrote:

> Robin,
> I am hoping that in paraphrasing your "how is it?" as "how did this 
> happen?", I am not taking your words in unintended directions!

Yes - how did this happen?

> It happened because we let it happen.

If you can show that we somehow could have prevented this, and that
we could reasonably have foreseen that the Labor Party would
seriously pursue this, then yes - "we let it happen".

> - People believed the aphorism that "the Internet treats censorship as 
>   damage and routes around it". If there's no threat, there's no need to act.
>   This was lazy idealism. It was pretty dumb, in retrospect, to
>   turn a limited technical truth into a messianic world view.

This might explain some level of inaction.  For instance, most
Linkoids will already have explored using a proxy server or VPN or
whatever outside the country if this rotten filter is turned on.  If
we all believed that there were no such workarounds, then we would be
doing more to prevent it.  Also, we anticipate that most of the
public, if they go to any trouble at all, will be able to pay for a
reasonably inexpensive proxy server in another country, and so
circumvent the filter - albeit with slower response times and greater
costs for large volumes of data.  So we anticipate the impact will
not be as disastrous as if the filter was going to be 100% effective.

The workarounds are real, and our more relaxed approach is responding
to this aspect of reality.

Also, with concerted effort - and probably quite a lot of fun -
opponents of the filtering scheme could make a mockery of it by
widely publishing a continually updated, reasonably complete, list of
all the sites which are banned.

> - Lazy idealism became a political philosophy, with the dreadful 
>   "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace". This taught its
>   adherents that since government is irrelevant, disengagement is
>   both acceptable and noble. Now, governments have arrived, and
>   we're fifteen years late in learning politics.

Yeah . . .


pass the bong . . . . .

As long as the government can make arbitrary laws, arrest and
imprison you, the government is relevant.  Without the constraints of
the First Amendment, that is what is happening here.

> - We celebrate those who "work around" barriers in other countries, but 
>   forget the huge effort and risk involved. If someone finds a way to get 
>   video out of a war zone, they should be celebrated. But it's difficult 
>   and dangers *because* governments are able to interfere with the 
>   Internet. We also ignore the huge political engagement involved in 
>   posting videos from Iran, or in propagating , or even propagating the 
>   Chinese "Grass Mud Horse".

Yes - and the government could easily outlaw VPNs or any other
actions aimed at circumventing their censorship regime.  I assume
this is the case in China etc.

They could also extend the ban to protocols other than HTTP.

>   These are stories about the tenacity and bravery of people. All too 
>   often, they're cast as "The Power of The Internet". We focus on the 
>   messianic technology and ignore the human agency involved - in a sense, 
>   it's as if people want to validate sloppy thinking and political 
>   disengagement ("The Internet taking care of itself"), when the real 
>   story is about human risk, effort, and political commitment.

Labor's plan (its not Conroy's filter) will never be completely
effective.  There may well be some hi-jinks and heroics if it is ever
implemented, but that doesn't alter the awful problems of chilling
communication and many people getting used to another level of
government restriction on communications.

> - I have come to the conclusion that it's bad politics to emphasise the 
>   technical ineffectiveness of the filter. It justifies political 
>   disengagement among the "digital elite" (sorry, Stil, you're stuck with 
>   that one!) - "if you build the filter, I'll just circumvent it" without 
>   offering a "pitch" to the ordinary voter.
>   The technical argument is also patronising. Take an imaginative leap: 
>   you're not a member of Link. Instead, you're Tracy, mother-of-four from 
>   Baulkham Hills. On the TV is some geek saying "a sixteen year old can 
>   circumvent the filter!" Then the government says "we'll protect your 
>   children against online predators!" Which pitch wins?

I agree it is a bad idea to emphasis the ease of circumvention - in
part because with a few extra words the government could make this a
criminal offence, just like I assume selling RC books, DVDs and
magazines in a shop is a criminal offence.

> - It was a mistake to expect the Internet to lead to a revolution of 
>   political thought merely because we, the early users, included idealists 
>   and visionaries among our numbers. The universal Internet - the thing we 
>   all wanted - by definition will include views and attitudes different 
>   from those of the visionaries. If we ignore them, or disdain them, then 
>   they're unlikely to share our viewpoint.

Yes - Internet communications can increase dullness and
close-mindedness just as much as the opposite.

> In retrospect - I also should have thought of this years ago - the time 
> to defend a freedom was when it came into existence. We're now in an 
> uncomfortable position: thinking ourselves in the vanguard, we now find 
> ourselves fighting in the rearguard.

I argue that it was reasonable to expect that the ALP would not
seriously engage in any such thing.  We had years of the hated (by
many) Howard Government - and its Communication Minister seemed to
agree with us: that Internet filtering/censorship would be expensive,
insufficiently effective and undesirable.

In the mid- to late-1990s, the US government twice passed Internet
censorship laws - both were found unconstitutional within weeks, if I
recall correctly.

The ALP in NSW toyed publicly with censoring the Net, including
emails - but they dropped that.

At first (I guess) we thought it was a few individuals in the ALP
pandering to the puritanical, religious, social control (AKA
Stalinist) tendencies and/or trying to curry favour with Steve Fielding.

Now the PM brazenly supports it - and there's no sign of internal
revolt in the part about this policy.

I think the problem is that too many people - our bright new PM
included - lack the social and political insight to realise what this
means: a new set of constraints on a rich, new (15 years old for most
people) set of communication systems.

I also think that the now commonplace nature of Internet
communications means that too many people think of it in a dull and
commonplace way - as if Internet communications in general or the WWW
specifically is just like a book or a film.

I think the censorship of books and films should be challenged - not
extended into new modes of communication which have very little to do
with them.

This prevalent dumbness - that the Internet is the WWW and is
sufficiently like books or films to warrant the same restrictions - I
think that is the real problem.

Trying to combat widespread ignorance and stupidity is hard work.
Few people have much of an attention span or time to think and read
deeply.  Consider the success of text messaging and Twitter . . .

Dumbed-down newspapers sell more than the less dumbed-down - but even
"The Age" is dumbed down these days, and I don't recall any critical
mention of Internet censorship in it in recent months or years.

So I think the real problem is sufficient people becoming dumber to
allow travesties like this to be considered, to be implemented and
perhaps to be retained indefinitely.

I don't know what anyone could have done to prevent this - especially
us folks who have been doing our best to use the Net for socially
uplifting and intellectually enriching purposes, while trying to
ensure anyone can access it easily.  What more could we have done to
stop this epidemic of dullness?

In the absence of conspiracies and the like, I think "epidemic of
dullness" - after 10 to 15 years of general experience with at least
some types of Internet communication - is a reasonable
characterisation of the social processes which lead to the ALP and
the PM supporting Internet censorship, with so little popular outrage.

 - Robin

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