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03 January 2008

Verisimilitude Provocation

acma censorship content filter


Where's The Mandatory Filtering For Government Stupidity?

I’m still in holiday mode and have not spent much time online studying the reaction to the idiotic mandatory filtering proposals from the new Rudd government, but I expect this editorial published in the Australian is mostly representative. I disagree with none of it.

However I just can’t help passing further comment, mainly because there is a lengthy discussion in the previously-mentioned Lessig book which outlines what I would consider an acceptable regulatory framework for controlling access to content online. So please feel free to peruse it for yourself (the section titled “Regulating Net-Porn” in particular), but it might be summarised as requiring publishers to rate their content in accordance with pre-existing legal standards (eg a “harmful to minors” HTML tag), which would in turn create a market for end-user filtering technology.

But instead of this, what are we getting? Mandatory (but perhaps a per-customer ‘opt-out’ ability) filtering of some vaguely defined standard using not-at-all defined technology and with not-at-all defined procedures for redress of inappropriate filtering. Just like the internet connection at work, in other words.

The point that strikes me upon reading Lessig’s book is that if filtering is to be performed (and I reiterate the point that I am not against it) it is better that it be performed by the government, in accordance with acknowledged moral standards, with process transparency and accountability. None of these are guaranteed (nor likely) if private interests are involved in filtering our content. As Lessig says:

It has taken key civil rights organizations too long to recognize this private threat to free-speech values. The tradition of civil rights is focused directly on government action alone. I would be the last to say that there’s not great danger from government misbehavior. But there is also danger to free speech from private misbehavior.

But in handing the filtering problem to the ISPs, the government is effectively absolving themselves of the responsibility to implement it as intended. ISPs will of course implement the content filtering using the cheapest solution they can find, even if the false-positive rate is 99.5%.

On the other hand they could require the ISPs to block sites on ACMA’s blacklist. And we all know how well that will work, right kids? But the point is that at least with ACMA you have some recourse.

I think that requiring government accountability is the key to ensuring an acceptable outcome. If they are serious about the problem of content finding an inappropriate audience, lets see them own that problem, not just outsource it to the ISPs and hope for the best.