Filtering at the ISP level: Big brother or big deal?

Kevin Rudd and computers.jpg

Last November a majority of Australians voted for the first Federal Labor Government this century.

Labor was elected on a broad platform of policy reform. Without getting into the murky waters of mandate debates it is clear that Labor promised to do many things that would impact the information technology (IT) industry. These included the “education revolution” (to better equip secondary students with technology in the classroom), a commitment to internet filtering at the internet service provider (ISP) level, the blacklisting of violent and paedophile material on the internet and a new approach to industry innovation policy.

In this new political landscape the IT industry has the opportunity to deliver on its claims to be able to enable a ‘new world’ of work, education, living and commerce.

For over a year in Opposition, Labor argued with vigour and persistence for filtering of the internet at an ISP level. It did not suggest, and did not promise, that this initiative would stop children from ever accessing inappropriate material on line. Rather it made clear that as ISP filtering technology was available it was reasonable to have that technology deployed to aid parents in their efforts to keep children safe on line.

Censorship is a challenging concept for a democratic, liberal society. Filtering the net is a form of censorship. The history of censorship has proven beyond a doubt that while governments that censor access to information do generally little harm they invariably achieve even less good.

Even less in doubt is the fact that our society has accepted that the state has a role in protecting children by restricting their access to information. An overwhelming majority of Australians would agree that parents need help to lessen the possibility that their children will observe material on the internet that is inappropriate for their comprehension, understanding, circumstances or sensibilities.

A survey conducted by AC Nielsen and commissioned by Child Wise - an Australian organisation working to prevent sexual abuse - of around 1,500 internet users, found 83 percent believed that ISPs should block all child pornography, 76 per cent would change to an ISP that blocked child pornography and 64 per cent were not confident that home-based internet filters were effective.

The risks to children of new technology is too often focused only on pornography however this is not surprising given an estimated that 100,000 commercial websites offer child pornography and more than 20,000 images of such pornography are posted on the web every week.

The uniqueness of the internet demands policy leaders respond carefully. Policy should not confuse the internet with television. It is a pervasive technology without timetable or schedule. The providers of content are not always identified or identifiable. There are no globally agreed standards for content. Access is via multiple devices and increasingly through relatively low cost mobile options. This openness, ubiquitousness and egalitarianism make the internet a powerful tool and enabler. These characteristics create anxiety and frustration in parents, teachers and politicians.

I believe the Federal Government has a mandate for its plan to implement ISP level filtering. That plan however has drawn criticism from, among others, Internet Service Providers, technology advocates, libertarians and those concerned with privacy. Issues of concern include whether the technology can be effective, the cost of implementation, implications for the performance of the net and the level of privacy intrusion the policy may necessitate now and in the future.

It is right that these issues be raised and discussed. The level of state intervention in information flows to the public concerns us all. Ensuring that the process which determines which sites on the internet are blocked is open, transparent and independently oversighted is crucial.

Even though Labor’s policy will follow similar initiatives taken in other countries (such as the UK, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) it will only supplement other strategies and government programs already targeting the effects of digital communications on children. Strategies like the NetAlert program that provides free pc level filters and the anti digital bullying in schools programs administered by the States.

ISP level filtering can only ever be one small part of an active program to defend the right of parents to guide and nurture their children in a technologically ubiquitous world. With ABS statistics showing that around 1.2 million households with broadband access have children under the age of 15, the centrality of education as a positive strategy needs to be emphasised again.

Government and industry actions will never substitute for active parenting – communication, honesty and trust between parents and children. Only in this way can the experience and judgement of one be used to guide and nurture the growth of the other.

The emergence of the internet as an open tool of information for children has raised questions and challenges that have long persisted in our society. No single solution will resolve these issues. The IT industry has a substantial challenge ahead of it. So too does our society.

Simon Edwards, Manager, Government and Industry Affairs, Microsoft Australia

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