The issue of keeping the Internet safe for kids is a hardy perennial: at some point in the political cycle the...
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story nearly always blooms.
This year, the story came early with the August launch of the Howard government's controversial $189 million NetAlert - Protecting Australian Families Online programme, which includes a safety hotline, online safety awareness education, and extra police masquerading as children in chat rooms.
The most public and disputed element of the package is the $84.4 million National Filter Scheme, which provides parents with downloadable filters to block prohibited content when installed on a PC. Also included is the option for families to demand their ISP block such material before it arrives at the home PC.
But despite a long debate over the rights and wrongs of Internet filtering and the best way to go about it, the new package does not please everyone.
Boys will be boys
The genesis of the new arrangements came halfway through 2003 when Prime Minister John Howard, reacting to a survey that found 84% of teenage boys had looked at pornography online, said he and his colleagues were looking at porn filtering options. Clive Hamilton, executive director of The Australia Institute, which conducted the survey, piped up claiming that mandatory ISP level filtering was the only way to go, as it would require ISPs to block all such content before it was funnelled to end users.
This suggestion was met with derisive snorting from the then Shadow Minister for Information Technology, Kate Lundy, who said, "The cost this would place on ISPs would be prohibitive and Internet speeds would be significantly reduced."
Almost 18 months later, in August 2004, Hamilton again emerged demanding porn filtering, claiming we now had the technology, and it was simply a case of 'just do it'.
"It's as simple as that," he said, "it's just whether you're willing to do it."
Hamilton's reiteration failed to reignite debate. The issue was out of the headlines until December that year, when the issue of child porn was brought up in parliament by the independent Senator Harradine. Senator Coonan, who had at that stage had been keeping the Minister for IT's seat warm for five months, declared that the government thought that ISP-level porn filtering was a terrible idea. It had been considered, but rejected, on the basis that it would choke the Internet and drive up costs for end users, as well as achieve very little in terms of actual filtering.
Fast forward to March 2006, two years after the idea was first floated. Kim Beazley, a year into his second stint as federal opposition leader, ran Labor's plan for mandatory ISP-level filtering up the flagpole. It got a hearty salute from family groups but was panned by industry groups and, unsurprisingly, the government.
Under the plan, which was modelled on the British "clean feed" plan, ISPs would be required to block all content which contained graphic sexual or violent material. All households in Australia would be affected by the filter, unless they actively opted out. According to Beazley the plan was motivated by the "reality" that many computer-illiterate parents had no idea how to implement a filter on their home PC, so an automatic-in, manual-out plan would be more effective.
Coonan again emphasised the government's anti-ISP-level filtering position, claiming PC-based filters were good enough and ISP-level filters would choke Internet access. Others voiced criticism of the government's apparently non-committal attitude to protecting children online.
Coonan shows her goods
A year later, in June 2006, Coonan publicly announced the government's own porn blocking plan, a preview of the now implemented plan: the government would provide free PC-based filters for parents to install, which would also be made available to libraries.
"We are deadly serious about protecting Australian children and families," Coonan said.
Labor took the opportunity to emphasise that their solution would block prohibited material at the source: ISPs.
Coonan and Family First's Fielding once again took up their respective anti- and pro-ISP-level filtering positions. In what appeared to be a concession to placate Fielding's crew, Coonan said that while sceptical of the whole thing, she'd keep the idea under review.
Midway through this year Telstra took a stand, saying it would not take part in any ISP-level filtering trial, because the whole thing would slow Internet speeds. Greater flexibility could be found in PC-based filters, according to the telco, and ISP-based ones would simply give parents a false sense of security.
Come July and Fielding wanted to know why there had been no movement on the filtering front. Coonan obliged and the two re-enacted their usual anti/pro debate.
Everything hits at once
August rolled in and suddenly the action was upon us, with every interested party's media machine greased up and ready to roll. Firstly the government again laid out their porn-busting plans, with the only obvious change from the earlier preview being a more impressive dollar figure attached; The National Filter Scheme officially comprised downloadable PC-based filters and optional ISP-level filtering if requested.
This last element was immediately criticised by Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), the self-styled guardian of civil e-liberties, which described itself as 'appalled'. EFA agreed with Telstra that ISP-level filtering of any kind would simply give parents a false sense of security as well as cause significant reduction in Internet access speeds. It cynically decreed the policy a 'rehash'.
On the 20th of August the government made the filters publicly available. Coonan commented, likening the filters to a seatbelt. Lots of libraries were reported to not have employed the filters, however, citing the propensity of filters to block non-pornographic material. One in particular spoke of the potential difficulty in researching safe topics such as breast-cancer on a filtered PC.
Before the week was out there were reports of a precocious 16 year old cracking the filter within half an hour of downloading it, allowing blocked content to be viewed on his machine. Furthermore, he was able to make it appear as though the filter was still running, so parents wouldn't suspect subversion.
Coonan was quick to comment, returning to her seatbelt metaphor and saying a protected computer was better than an unprotected one, even if the protection failed to prevent a fatality.
"It doesn't mean that the whole scheme is not worthwhile, because a lot of kids haven't cracked it," she added.
She later followed up with a comment saying the filter vendor was 'having a look at it'; the vendors are contractually obligated to update the filters as circumnavigations surface.
Peter Coroneos, chief executive of Internet Industry Association (IIA), has consulted with the government regarding the development of its filtering policy, and considers the 16 year old filter-hacker an isolated and unusual case.
"There's very little evidence that your average 15 year old could do that," he said, adding that the child must have had administrator access privileges on the computer to circumvent the filter - a situation which should be prevented by parents when the computer is initially set up.
Coroneos said that the IIA supports PC-based filters and optional ISP-level filtering. He does not share the EFA's concerns about optional ISP-level filtering despite the effects on Internet access speeds, as he expects uptake to be low.
"Once users understand the detrimental effects of ISP level filters on their connection, that will affect demand."
He is critical of the opposition's mandatory ISP-level filter policy, however, given the effect such a blanketing of filters would have on Internet access.
"This debate is occurring in the heat of a bitterly contested election environment," he said, and added that whatever the outcome of the election, the IIA will consult with the victor in order to protect children while not inhibiting Internet access speeds.