Article categories: Opinion
February 7th, 2009

The Australian Government’s Plan for Cyber-Safety (also less-affectionately called the Clean Feed, InternetWatch, or Conroy’s Filter) is creating a proverbial feeding ground of debate, confusion and resistance.  The Government’s plan to introduce a filter into Australian homes, schools and public computers to prevent access to prohibited material, will roll out under a two-tier system. The first tier applies a mandatory nation-wide blocking of prohibited material. The second tier will be available to families for additional blocking of a broader range of content.

Whilst the protection of children is undeniably important, the plan for stringent censorship of online content comes with a host of issues. At the top of the list are slower Internet speeds (87% according to GetUp ), mandatory involvement (opt-out options have been provided by all other Western governments who have implemented the scheme), restrictions on our democratic freedoms and rights to freedom of speech.

Add to that the very real possibility of the substantial long-term damage that could occur to the Australian emerging media and creative industries. For the majority of media artists using the Internet for their work, the filter means that their continued practise is at risk. Considering creativity is a central factor in innovation, the results will be detrimental to Australia’s business economy.

What ethical right does the Government have to block safe and harmless sites that contribute to people’s lives, incomes and jobs? Will the Government compensate for the losses considering the current financial situation, the recently released Federal Budget and ever increasing unemployment rates?

It seems that despite overt resistance, the plan is set to stream roll ahead. As stated on the No Clean Feed site, “Despite being almost universally condemned by the public, ISPs, state governments, media and censorship experts, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is determined to force this filter into your home. ”

With the protection of children the central factor behind said cyber-safety, one wonders why children are not being involved in the trial? At recent public forums held on the issue by, Kerry Graham (CEO of Inspire Foundation) commented that if the proposed clean feed is a response to assertions that children are at risk when they are online, then ‘we need to reposition young people themselves at the centre of the debate.”  We are yet to see any examples of children being involved in the planning of the scheme – that is apart from the nifty 16 year old Tom Wood who reportedly hacked the first trial in less than 30 minutes.

It has been also suggested that a better option would be to teach protective behaviours skills directly to children, to give them the skills to protect themselves. And of course parents need to get educated about the technologies and sites their children are using and learn to speak the same language. Yet the Government seems to be resisting the adoption of wider strategies to support or replace the filter, despite large public resistance.

While we scratch our heads regarding the logic behind it all, the helplessly geeky amongst us are already devising ways to get around the filter. The team at Floss Manuals have created the book ‘How to Bypass Internet Censorship’ , which documents simple circumvention techniques along with more complex manoeuvres. Other groups state the filter will be easily avoided using VPNs and proxies and interestingly, peer-to-peer file sharing and email networks will not be included under the filter.

Still, concerns remain around Australian sites containing emerging technologies (insert new media artists and open source communities here) being incorrectly added to the ‘inappropriate’ list and, how such sites will be made ‘safe’ again. In March when a blacklist appeared on Wikileaks, it sent the message to those opposing the Plan for Cyber Safety that “their worst fears had come true ” despite Governments denial it was the official ACMA blacklist. Following the leak the Government issued a media release claiming that the leak was “grossly irresponsible…and undermines efforts to improve cyber-safety”  Since this statement the Government is now considering the inclusion of euthanasia, gambling and pornography sites – it seems their blacklist is quickly becoming grey.

Contributing to the debate is the concern around the accountability of those managing the lists.

In his March media release, Senator Conroy states “A final decision on the extent of the content filtering proposal will be determined after the conclusion of technical feasibility trials.”  However, in the (exceedingly large and equally dry) Report to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy by the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA) in June 2008, it is stated that ACMA “was not asked as part of the trial, to assess the capability of ISP-level filtering technologies that filters only illegal content”. With the Government vary aware of the risk the filter proposed to safe sites, we are left wondering why this wasn’t incorporated into the trials?

Perhaps the slow down of the net that will be a direct result of the filter is why Senator Conroy has supported investment in the ‘National Broadband Network’. Interestingly in his media release on this issue he comments ‘”The Australian Government understands that access to affordable, fast broadband is increasingly essential to the way Australians communicate and do business”. We could also look at his comments around efforts to invigorate and strengthen Australia’s Digital economy.

Despite the hefty gaps in updates from the Government, there could be some potential gold at the end of the rainbow – they have announced that “A major review of Australian and international research on cyber-safety will be undertaken by Edith Cowan University”. However, the project will only review “cyber-safety issues, such as cyber-bullying, online predators and the disclosure of personal information.”

With continued criticism, concern and discontent from large sectors of society the debate continues…and if you are not already voicing your opinion, perhaps you had better start now – before its too late!

Amanda Matulick
An enthusiastic ‘geek-in-learning’, Amanda’s passion for digital communication and online environments has seen her transition Filter Magazine from hard format into digital, optimising the amount of value added content. As well as managing ANAT’s communications and marketing strategies, she is regularly invited to speak and write about the impact of digitisation on arts publishing.


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