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Those of us who are fortunate to be parents know what life is all about. It’s about our children; nurturing them, helping them grow and develop, protecting them from harm; physical harm, mental harm and social harm.
…parents may be lulled into a false sense of security
I’ve recently become aware that a plan by our brand new Labor government which purports to make the Internet safe for our children, will do no such thing. Worse, parents may be lulled into a false sense of security and let their children use the internet unsupervised. This plan will make the internet much more dangerous for our children.
All Australian parents support the idea of protecting children from Internet pornography
Well, nearly all of us. The figure was 93% according to a 2003 Newspoll survey commissioned by The Australia Institute1. And it’s probably safe to say that a similar percentage of Australia’s grandparents, uncles and aunts also support this idea.
But rather than use the government-supplied filtering software on our home PCs, most of us choose to protect our children from internet porn in the same way we protect them from life’s other dangers like swimming, driving, alcohol and drugs.
- Agree on boundaries,
- Supervise closely at first,
- Reward responsible behaviour with more freedom,
- Be prepared for the odd failure to meet expectations, and
- Be there when they need help.
Now, I’m not sure why, (possibly because of the low take-up rate of the government-supplied home PC internet filter) but our government is planning to introduce ISP-level filtering software. Being in the industry, I thought I’d take a closer look.
A closer look at the government’s plan
The ACMA Report
First stop was Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filters - Report to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, June 2008, the report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, “The ACMA Report”. This documents ACMA’s testing of six ISP-Level internet filters; some software, some hardware, some a hybrid of hardware and software. The ACMA Report is available from the ACMA website.
Yes, there are significant performance issues reported. I’ll leave it to the economists to calculate the losses to Australia’s digital economy. Yes, ISPs will need more hardware, CPU cycles, cooling power and electricity. I’ll leave it to the scientists to calculate the carbon footprint. None of this matters, as long as children are protected.
But the chart on page 44 of the ACMA Report, caught my eye.
No product successfully blocks 100%
The six products are identified by the anonymous names Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc.
Chart showing the Blocking Rate Index (BRI) and Over-Blocking Index (OBI) of the six filtering products tested by the ACMA. Source: The ACMA Report p44
…a BRI of 0.87 is like having 87% of a pool fence
The ACMA Report defines the Blocking Rate Index (BRI) as the rate at which the filter products successfully block the pages they are supposed to block. No products had a BRI of 1.0. One product’s BRI was 0.87, or, in other words, it only blocked 87% of the pages it was supposed to block. To me, a BRI of 0.87 is like having 87% of a pool fence. Completely useless. You still have to supervise your child as if there were no pool fence at all.
All products “Over-Block”
1 in 12 legitimate websites will be blocked
That is, they block innocent websites. The ACMA’s report defines the “Over-Blocking” Index as the rate at which G and PG-rated websites are blocked. The average OBI was 0.03, with a maximum of 0.08. 3% means 1 in 33, 8% means 1 in 12 legitimate websites will be blocked. We are not talking about child-porn sites on an ACMA blacklist; we are talking about legitimate sites that are blocked as a side-effect of the filter’s normal operation.
Collateral Damage: medical help forums
Here’s where it gets personal, Senator Conroy. Apologies to other readers if there is TMI.
Those who know me or have read some of my earlier posts, will know that I had some major surgery in 2001 resulting in a total proctocolectomy and a permanent ileostomy. I now have no colon, no rectum and live permanently with a plastic bag attached to the outside of my abdomen. The decision to proceed with the surgery was a tough one but it was made easier when I discovered Internet forums where cancer and colitis sufferers ask questions and offer each other support.
The english-speaking world’s most active sites for ostomy (ileostomy, colostomy, urostomy) support are:
Just knowing that Shaz’s community was there ready to answer questions was a major factor in my decision to proceed with surgery in 2001 after many years of trying to avoid it. Now that I am more experienced, I regularly visit these forums and answer questions from folks with recent surgery.
… these forums will almost certainly be regularly, accidentally “Over-Blocked”
Cancer victims, particularly, sometimes wake up after emergency surgery to find that they now have an ileostomy. It is such a shock that they don’t hear the advice they are given in hospital. Once they leave hospital they or their carers turn to these internet forums looking for answers. Not being medically trained, they will ask questions using colloquial terms to describe the “plumbing” parts of the human body; terms which in other contexts would be rude words. Sometimes, people post photos of their stomas. These photos contain a lot of skin and “pink bits”.
The description of image analysis on page 14, pass-by filtering and pass-through filtering on page 15 of The ACMA Report leads me to believe that these forums will almost certainly be regularly, accidentally “Over-Blocked”.
Accidental over-blocking will also hit forums for people who ask questions about anorexia, drug rehabilitation, relationship issues …
The more I look at it, the worse Senator Conroy’s solution looks.
But won’t it at least stop child pornography?
Actually, no. From the ACMA Report, p7
… most filters are not presently able to identify illegal content and content that may be regarded as inappropriate that is carried via the majority of non-web protocols
Guess what? Paedophile rings rarely use the easily-detected web protocols. Senator Conroy’s plan won’t go near them. This is also shown in the table on page 45 of the ACMA Report.
Mike addresses the Brisbane rally against
Senator Conroy’s censorship plan
So what’s next?
I was so concerned about what I learned from the ACMA Report that last Saturday, I addressed the Anti-Net Censorship rally in Brisbane. There were similar rallies in other Australian capital cities.
For those on Facebook, there is a video of what I had to say. Unfortunately, it was preaching to the converted. To the internet-savvy, (mainly) young people who turned up, Senator Conroy’s plan is so flawed technically that there is now fertile ground for conspiracy theories about censorship by stealth.
The real message
- To all parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts of Australian children, I say “Senator Conroy’s plan is dangerous for children. Don’t let your guard down. If necessary, use the in-home filters which you can supervise. 87% of a pool fence is worse than no pool fence at all.”
- To the child protection groups who appear to have hitched their wagon to Senator Conroy’s train, I say “You are being taken for a ride. Do not be responsible for creating an environment that places children at risk.”
- To people looking for help with medical, social and human relationship problems, I say “Senator Conroy’s plan will block up to 1 in 12 of your legitimate websites.”
- To citizens concerned about child pornography, I say “Senator Conroy’s tens of millions of dollars will not get one paedophile one metre closer to a courtroom. Spend the money on AFP detectives.”
- To all Australian taxpayers, I say “Senator Conroy is wasting your taxes on something which only appears to be doing something. Not only does it not work, it actually makes the Internet more dangerous for children.”
Mail or e-mail Senator the Hon Stephen Conroy. Tell him you don’t want your taxes wasted on this flawed internet filter.
Write to your local Member. Write to each of the Senators for your state. Tips: Be polite; Include your name and registered electoral address; Ask for an appointment to speak with them in person. They’ll be in the electorate over the summer recess.
1. The Australia Institute, Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton (March 2003): Regulating Youth Access to Pornography. p23.
In 377 households with children aged 12 to 17, parents were asked: Would you support a system which automatically filtered out Internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise?
Results: Yes - 93%; No - 5%; Unsure - 3% (rounded)