Australia rallies to “Stop the Clean Feed”

The Australian blogosphere has largely come together to protest a government internet filtering scheme that will require Internet Service Providers to offer a “Clean-Feed” service to all homes, schools and public access points to the internet.

The filter is part of a $125.8 million (Australian) “cyber safety plan” that will work in two tiers. First, Australian ISPs would be required to block access to around 10,000 websites whose designation will be controlled by the same authority that rates films. However, the government has not yet released the list to the public, but maintains it contains only illegal content, like child pornography.

A second plan would require Australian ISPs to provide an additional optional filter that would further block material regarded as unsuitable for children.

The scheme, brought by Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy, has been unfavorably compared to Internet policies in Iran, China and Saudi Arabia and has met howls of criticism from voters. ISPs warn the filters will slow down the internet by nearly 90 percent and complain the scheme would entirely ignore peer-to-peer networks, where most illegal content is exchanged.

Despite the negative reactions, the government is pushing ahead with the plan, arguing filters will “provide greater protection to children from online pornography and violent websites.”

Public backlash continues to grow. Online advocacy groups have created anti-Clean Feed petitions and adverts and short films. Disapproval could culminate this weekend in “Stop the Clean Feed rallies” scheduled at major cities around the country. The events, largely sponsored by Electronic Frontiers Australia, will include at least two Twitter Feeds. (The second, here.)

What do bloggers think?

An organizer for the Canberra rally, Nathanael Boehm, a web designer who works for the Australian government and writes privately at pureCaffeine, argues the Clean Feed is an information access issue.

The Internet Filter represents the first step in introducing censorship in Australia and takes away our freedom to access information we want. It gives the Government power to control the web and only let us see what they want us to see. The technical implementation is inefficient and ineffective and will slow the speed of Internet in Australia. It will reverse the positive impact the roll-out of the National Broadband Network, although that’s also a waste of money.

Do you really think an electronic nanny should replace the role of the parent in educating kids about the safe use of the web? Especially a technology that failed trials for accuracy of filtering? Do you trust the Government to be the custodians of a black list of sites that they think you shouldn’t be looking at? Sure, it might start off with just blocking extreme hardcore porn … but you know it won’t stop there.

They have no right to do this.

Margaret Simmons, writing in Crikey Blogs, maintains people are fighting the Clean Feed because it’s a free speech issue fraught with technical difficulties.

This filtering comes in two tiers. One tier is compulsory; it will filter Child Pornography and other (undecided) illegal pages.

The second is an optional component for filtering pornography. An opt in, optional component is fine.

It’s the compulsory filter that is dangerous. In 2004 we passed a law saying we cannot discuss Euthanasia online. Will that be put on the compulsory filter?

What about drug information? Where does it stop? Who decides what is filtered out? The problem with me arguing this is that proponents of this will only stand up and shout “So your in favour of Child Pornography then?” or “Won’t someone think of the Children!?”

This an invalid argument. Instead of debating the issues people claim that if you are against this legislation you must want Child Porn.

The “Won’t someone think of the Children!?” argument is flawed. Since when did parents require the government to help them be parents? This is a condescending stance, tantamount to saying “We don’t think you are being good enough parents”. If parents took an active interest in what their child is doing then a lot of this would be unnecessary.

We should have complete and uncensored access to the internet. Anything illegal online is still illegal and should be handled by the law enforcement agencies.

The No Clean Feed rallies comes a few days after the UK-based pornography watchdog Internet Watch Foundation placed Wikipedia on a blacklist, causing 95 percent of internet users in Britain to be blocked from contributing to the site anonymously.

The offending image: A 1976 album cover of Virgin Killer by the German band the Scorpions.

OzAthiest sees the parallels in internet filtering gone wrong in both countries:

Here in Australia our government is considering having mandatory ISP filtering, unlike the UK where it is not compulsory. But as can be seen if something is considered child pornography then most operators will also consider it such, quite likely to avoid being seen as being soft on child pornography, it then becomes a matter of self censorship. Having seen the offending picture I can see how it could be considered child pornography, but then again I thought Bell Henson’s pictures were as well.

The problem with the ban is that now all users appear to wikipedia as one of six users (the six ISPs blocking the site), so if just one user gets banned then all users on that ISP will be banned from modifying wikipedia. This may seem a bit innocuous but think of the consequences.

One person complains to the watchdog (and in this case it was only one user), the site gets blacklisted, all users on those six ISPs (about 95% of home internet users) now appear as one of six users. Lets say six people, one on each of the six ISPs, purposefully get themselves banned by wikipedia, then just about every internet user can no longer edit anonymously. Then using an alternate ISP these nefarious gang of six edit various wikipedia sites, the rest of the populace now finds it difficult to correct these edits. These new entries come

I know I’m probably being a bit paranoid and ‘conspiracy theorist’ here, but it just shows how easy it could be, if mandatory filtering was in place, for a small group of people to wreck havoc on the internet for everyone else. Worse still, in Australia you might not even know it had happened, as the government doesn’t have to expose which sites have been black-listed.

1984 anyone?

(Here’s a good discussion on how the UK government is overusing Clean Feed by blocking entire URLs instead of offending images.)

Lavartus Prodeo, who supports the cause but won’t be rallying under the Australian sun for a free internet, sets off an interesting dialogue regarding the efficacy of protest marches.

I was arguing in various activist communities as early as the mid 90s that the rally/march model had had its day. With all due respect to the organisers, no one sane would advise anyone to stand around for an hour in the middle of the day at the height of Brisbane summer. Shade in Brisbane square is about nil. There are actually serious health risks.

Surely net-savvy folk can find much more creative ways of making their point, and as I do recognise that it’s often worth gathering people together in physical space, whatever’s wrong with a night time vigil or sunset gathering on the grass? At best this rally will achieve a short grab on the news. Activists need to think much more innovatively, and also take into account the bloody climate!

From a commenter named Billie:

I will be attending the rally in Melbourne because – like it or lump it – people on the news mean a lot more to our moronic elected representatives then an email petition – although I signed that as well. Stephen Conroy presents as techno-savvy in person.

Finally, in Labor View from Bayside, Kevin Rennie argued nearly one month ago this internet censorship plan could doom the Rudd government.

Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy have to drop this scheme now or it will haunt them for years to come. It is incredibly unpopular with many of their own party members and supporters. Even anti-Labor commentators such as Andrew Bolt are against it!

In these dire economic times, save some money. The money would be better spent on the digital revolution in schools.

Sink this before it helps to sink the government’s credibility.


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