19 May 2009

Cyberspace June 2009

Censorship in Australia

Australian governments have a history of introducing knee-jerk regulation and it appears that the regulators are following suit. Electronic Frontiers Australia recently stated it received a Final Link Deletion Notice (http://tinyurl.com/psbo5b) from ACMA (http://acma.gov.au) in relation to a link to a web page that contained a set of images of aborted foetuses. The page is on a site that is anti-abortion, but my argument here is about freedom of information.

ACMA stated the content was classified R18+ which includes "depictions of simulated sexual activity, material containing strong, realistic violence and other material dealing with intense adult

"Violence"? Let's assume that these photos were of the results of medical procedures; one camp will argue that violence occurred while others will argue it was a medical procedure. "Adult themes" might get them across the line, but unfortunately not everyone who gets pregnant is an adult.

Should ACMA censor the material that Australians can view? There are very persuasive arguments for blocking anything that either is a crime or can very directly lead to a crime. However, that's not what we're talking about here - this is a legal activity in Australia. This has removed material that can assist Australians to form opinions about a very serious topic. You might not like the photos, but a heart operation is pretty grisly too.

ACMA can get it strangely wrong. In relation to the ACMA black lists, the ABC reported (http://tinyurl.com/d7hez9) Senator Stephen Conroy (who is responsible for ACMA) to have said in relation to errors:
"... the Henson website was a "technical error" by an ACMA official, and the other two were the result of Russian mafia infiltrating the websites' servers and planting child pornography there."
The Russian Mafia?

Finally, the ABC reported:
"He says the internet filter - which is only in a trial phase - will not limit political content as many critics have said."
"If something is refused classification - if it promotes rape, promotes incest, or similar - it makes it onto the blacklist... The Government makes no apologies for that. No political contentwill be blocked, that is not the intention and in fact the law would have to be changed in order for that to happen."

At an industry conference he was reported to have said

"There is no political content banned in the existing Broadcasting Services Act," he said. "We are not building the Great Wall of China. We are going after the filth - like child pornography. Its been done around the world and it can be done here." (http://tinyurl.com/d8ese5)

Ok, Senator, in the light of that, explain why the anti-abortion site was blocked? And what else are you blocking not in the category of "promotes rape, promotes incest, or similar"?

This leads us to the current filtering controversy. Having worked in two large well-funded enterprises I can say that the filtering software I have seen is rubbish. They rely on combinations of manual indexing of sites (unfeasible and inaccurate anyway), and automatic filters, which get it wrong all the time. These tools are meant to be aids to safe surfing, not the arbiter of what I can and can't look at. The judge is me, not the software.

Self-control is fundamental to adulthood, at a personal and State level. On a personal level, my kitchen is full of knives, and it's only one step from that to a stabbing. On a State level, alcohol sale is not heavily restricted in, say, France, unlike Australia yet they are a world power.

Mr Controy, let us exercise self control in relation to what we consume, and let us teach our kids to do the same. We'll be better adults for it.