Friday, January 18, 2008

Big Brother Down Under?

A couple of edubloggers in my aggregator have commented on the recent announcement by the new Rudd government about its intentions to require all ISPs in Oz to filter the Internet for homes and schools, blocking pornography and "inappropriate" material. The announcement clearly states that the scheme is "opt-out" rather than "opt-in", as it was promoted in the recent election campaign. The reaction in various quarters has predictably been "censorship". I think censorship is a secondary issue here.

The Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy says he makes no apology for making the scheme mandatory. (Having heard Conroy speak on previous occasions, this is hardly surprising - I wonder if he actually knows how to apologise.)

My feelings about this announcement have shifted as I've thought through the likely scenarios. My initial reaction was that it's a positive move that will protect young children - as a father, things that will help to protect my kids tend to get a thumbs up.

As an educator, my initial thoughts were much the same. Then I started thinking about the implementation and implications.

What sort of filtering will be used? As a teacher at a school with filtering systems in place, I know full well that even the most recent versions of filtering are far from perfect. Word filters catch words, but not pictures on webpages that don't have those words. Black-lists will always be playing catch-up to the websites that you want blocked. White-lists? They also are always in catch-up mode, and in the meanwhile stifle legitimate exploration of the web. It seems a reasonable assumption that while the ISPs may do their best to conform with the government's policy, they won't catch everything.

So what happens when something gets through all this filtering, and little Johnny goes home and says, "Guess what Billy saw on the computer today at school?"

Right now, if that happened, the parents would take it up with the school; the school would check that its filtering was working, and point to the line in their policy that says that they make every effort to block inappropriate material but due to the nature of the Internet cannot guarantee..., etc., and that's probably where it would end in most cases.

But once the new policy starts being enforced, schools have a new defence: the ISP should have blocked it before it got to us; if it got past their filters... .

When the ISP takes the line "we make every effort to block inappropriate material but due to the nature of the Internet cannot guarantee..., etc.", will that be accepted? Will the ISP be fined under the new legislation? Will the parents and/or the school be able to seek damages in court?

If ISPs will be required only to do "their best" to provide clean feed (i.e. demonstrate that they have filters in place which are regularly updated), the end result is no different from what schools and parents are getting from their own filtering software now - except for one important detail - the consumers (schools and parents) will be paying for this filtering on an ongoing basis.

On the other hand, if ISPs must provide clean feed, they will be vulnerable to prosecution, which will leave the smaller ISPs more exposed than the industry big guns, in the long run resulting in the smaller ISPs bowing out or being subsumed by their larger competition. And consumers will still end up paying for filtering.

The other thing that concerns me is that some parents who have been uncertain or lax about buying filtering software will now think "okay, it's taken care of for me, so I don't need to worry about what my kid is doing on the Internet." No filtering is perfect, and there is no substitute for parental supervision. But this policy may delude some parents into thinking that the Internet just got safer.

Australians already pay too much for mediocre web access - now they will pay even more, and for filtering that in all likelihood will be no improvement over what they can buy (for less). This policy stinks of one-upmanship on the Coalition's offer of giving family free Internet filters for their home computers.

Big Brother? More like Fagin, if you ask me.

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