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Hobart rally against Internet Filtering

Speech by John Dalton (As written)

Hobart, December 13 2008 – I’m pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you all today about why Digital Tasmania has decided to speak out in opposition to the Federal Labour government’s proposed internet censorship scheme.

Our key concerns relate to the ineffectiveness of the filtering technology being proposed and the way it will negatively affect broadband speeds nationwide. The cost to ISPs of this scheme is going to be passed onto the consumer, directly leading to an increased cost in broadband access.

No internet filtering technology yet devised is foolproof. Computer software designed to identify inappropriate content is notorious for getting it wrong, not merely by failing to identify inappropriate content, but also by blocking legitmate sites incorrectly.

Internet filtering software has been known to block sites on topics such as breast cancer and breast feeding, after incorrectly determining that these sites continued sexual material. Other sites which have been blocked by filtering software include those of the Vatican and the Whitehouse.

Even the simplest sort of filter, one which only blocks specific addresses which have been examined by a human and determined to contain inappropriate content, can have unintended side-effects. Just last week in the United Kingdom an attempt to block inappropriate content on Wikipedia resulted in the majority of UK internet users being unable to contribute to Wikipedia.

Perhaps we as a society should be willing to put up with this if it will result in a safer internet for our children – but the simple fact is that the proposed internet filtering scheme won’t do what Senator Conroy and the Labour Government want it to do.

Even when a filter manages to block inappropriate content successfully, it’s extremely simple for a determined internet user to get around the block. Circumventing an internet filter doesn’t require secret hacker knowledge, and it can be done using technologies most of us use every day.

The same encryption technology that allows us to securely use Internet banking and credit cards online can also be used to set up a Virtual Private Network into which the filters cannot see. Unless the Federal government is considering undermining the entire Internet economy in
Australia, they cannot stop determined people from avoiding the filter.

When a student trying to do research on breast cancer for a school assignment gets blocked by an over-zealous content filter, they may well join the ranks of those people determined to circumvent it. It’s likely that methods to circumvent mandatory filtering will circulate on the
internet within hours of the “Great Australian Firewall” becoming a reality.

Certainly people committing crimes online or distributing illegal material already know about these technologies. The proposed filter would have done nothing to prevent the distribution of illegal material by the people involved in the child pornography ring busted this week by the Australian Federal Police. The methods used by this group to distribute files aren’t even covered by the filter proposal.

The Government’s own research, conducted here in Tasmania and detailed in a report released in June this year, showed that the more accurate you make the filter, the slower your internet connection will be. The filtering software tested in this trial will slow down your access by an average of 30%. The most accurate of the products tested still got it wrong 1% of the
time – that means that out of ever million web pages, 10,000 could be blocked.

Last night I did a Google search for the keyword “Tasmania”, which returned 20,700,000 results – this is a tiny fraction of the content available online, which grows every minute of the day, but at a one percent false positive rate perhaps we could see more than 200,000 of those pages blocked incorrectly.

This government is entering into a technological arms race that it can never win, and the casualties of this war will be everyday Australians who will be hit in the hip pocket for a scheme they don’t need and didn’t ask for.

Internet filtering needs to start and end in the home. What is being proposed by the Federal government is a technological solution to a social problem, but technology cannot and should not replace the role of parents in protecting their children on-line.

I’m a parent, with two young boys, and like every parent I’ve given thought to how I can raise them to enjoy the benefits of the internet access without them being exposed to inappropriate content, or having them come into contact with people who might wish them harm.

My background is as a computer systems administrator, including a period working as a sysadmin for an ISP, and so I have the technical skills necessary to implement any of the filtering systems available. But when you look into it, you find that none of these systems can replace the need for education, or for supervision, or for responsible parenting.

Filtering software of some kind may have a role to play in protecting children, but as parents it’s our responsibility to determine that role, and the policy on what should be filtered.

The Federal government through their Net Alert scheme has for several years made available home based filtering software free of charge for Australian families and we believe that this scheme should continue.

Parents can already get free filters. If there were a real demand for ISPs to provide a ‘clean feed’ then surely one of the major ISPs in this country would offer a product to meet this need? The fact that nobody offers such a service is very telling.

We call on Senator Conroy to reconsider wasting taxpayer money on this type of filtering scheme when tests conducted here in Tasmania have shown that it is simply not effective and in fact is detrimental to the consumer’s broadband connection.

With the recent Basslink agreement the Tasmanian State Government has taken the first step in a long journey to claw our way back to parity with the mainland states of Australia as far as internet connectivity is concerned.

Let’s not undo the good work before the Basslink cable is even live by taking on a new system which will slow us all down.

We don’t deny that illegal material exists on the Internet – who could? While turning a collective blind eye may allow us all to sleep well at night thinking our children are safe, it doesn’t solve these crimes that have already been committed. Let’s instead put this money into the Federal
Police efforts to identify and prosecute those who produce and distribute illegal material, both in Australia and overseas.