Monday, 1 December 2008

Internet Censorship

Australia is going down the path of China, well sort of. It's not enough that Australia is bedfellows with such an oppressive regime, it now seems we are going down the path of the great firewall. Okay, I'm being a little extreme here. It's not going to be that bad, though the argument that those opposed to the censorship are enabling child pornography is a far worse slander. Clive Hamilton recently weighed in with his opinion, blasting the libertarian mantra on the issue. Here's a non-libertarian reply.

Won't someone please think of the children?
The may Dr Hamilton has constructed his argument makes for a sound rebuttal of the absolute libertarian position. That notion of absolute individualism is at odds with society and the restrictions we have when we play in it. But I can't help here to think his argument is a straw man, that by equating the libertarian argument to the protection of children he's making the same fallacy as anti-drug advocates do. You'd be hard-pressed to find a libertarian who would be against a voluntary filter, it's that it's mandatory where the problem lies.

Herein lies the false dichotomy presented by Dr Hamilton, it's either everything is permissible to everyone or the government should be allowed to censor for everyone. In writing his condemnation of the selfish individualists who are vehemently opposed to censorship, he's neglected the most fundamental principle of a liberal democracy: choice. There is a big difference between a voluntary and a mandatory system, and a voluntary system gives choice to those presented. It allows the government to help out the parents who need help, not everyone has the technical ability to censor their own system. But not everyone is a parent, not everyone needs to have their internet censored to protect children.

In Australia's film and literature classification system, we have grades depending on the content. There are certain films that are adults only and as a consequence only adults can view them. Arguing that the internet needs to be censored for all is like arguing that adult films shouldn't be allowed because children could watch them. The same argument too is against the R rating for computer games, the double standard in our society is explicit. There are plenty of exceptions that are made for adults, adults can drink, smoke tobacco, and they can gamble. They can read and view material that children can't. It's important to remember that even the opt-out option will still block material that's available to buy in certain stores.

Having the government help out having parents make informed choices should be part of a liberal democracy. Hamilton is right to rebuke those who argue that paternal responsibility doesn't have some social responsibility. This to me sums up his argument in a nutshell:
This argument for mandatory internet filters is in principle the same as the argument for the film censorship system. In the libertarian world where individual rights overrule social responsibilities we would have no film censor and kids could go to the cinema to watch whatever they liked. The film censorship system is pretty good at balancing the variety of viewpoints in the community.
It's possible to be in favour of the ratings system and still want to be able to see R-rated films. The argument he is giving is that adults should not be able to see R-rated films because children can't either. By censoring the internet, you are taking away an adults ability to go and see an R-rated film. Parents can still buy or rent R-rated DVDs, and children could still watch them if they are unsupervised. What's to stop a child from watching an R-rated film that their parents have a copy of? It does come down to parenting in the end, and while the government can assist in choice, ultimately whether a child watches an unsuitable film is an element they can't control.
"The whole principle is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." - Robert Heinlein on censorship

Technical feasibility
We need a community debate on the question of whether we should do it before we consider the question of whether we can do it because too many internet libertarians and industry spokespeople cover up their refusal to countenance any sort of regulation by insisting that it won't work.
From an ethical perspective, maybe this idea has some validity. From a pragmatic perspective, it's a pointless discussion if it can't be done. Prohibition of alcohol is pointless because of how easy it is to make your own (I have some brewing right now.) To me the discussion is tied to the practicality of the measures, there's no point in talking about building an electricity grid on the assumption of superconductivity if there are no room temperature superconductors. So in that any argument for or against censorship on a practical level can only be done in the boundaries of what is possible.

There are several factors to take into account: how many false positives there are, how many false negatives there are, the overall loss in bandwidth, and how easy it is to bypass the filter. Is having a browser based filter a better overall solution than a ISP-based filter? How can one objectively measure such claims? To me, if even a single legitimate page is censored then the filter is not doing it's job. But others would think differently and see that if a recipe containing chicken breast being blocked so a child doesn't see an exposed breast then the sacrifice was worth it. There's no way to objectively measure the effects of technology without appealing to some idealism. Freedom of speech and expression have been long touted as examples of Australia's freedom, so surely as an ideal it needs to play some role in being a base on which to make an objective measure.

Other technologies to consider are the different protocols that will not be affected at all by the filter. Peer-to-peer networks, cryptographic networks such as Freenet. There are plenty of cryptographic technologies and mechanisms to hide one's online identity. To push more users into these kinds of technologies will make a mockery of any filter - for not only will people have access to otherwise restricted content, there will be no way of having any enforcement. The open system allows for the catching of those who do view dangerous material like child pornography.

The internet is a global communications network, and Australia is but one hub on the network. Our laws can't control what is put on elsewhere in the world, but it's still accessible. Like companies that take advantage of tax breaks in other countries, the laws of one country can be bypassed by setting up shop in another. I wonder how politicians would feel about preventing the practice by banning any company from trade that goes offshore for tax breaks. I'm betting the take-up would be quite low. After all money talks. The point is that we operate on a global network every day including with unfavourable nations and business practices. China buys our iron ore and we turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses there, again money talks.

In the end, it all comes down to on an ethical level the best way to serve the interests of the vast majority of the population. The compromise between freedom and security is at the heart of this issue, how much freedom do we need to trade in to protect us from ourselves? More so, how much freedom do we need to sacrifice of ourselves for the security of others? How many people are on internet connections that do not need such protection? How many people do need protection and to what extent does that need to be there? Here it seems to be that mandatory censorship is problematic, it seeks to bypass asking those questions by giving a blanket effect on the ban. And if that mandatory filtering is going to have a false positive rate of 3% and reduce speeds by at least 11%, is it the best way for society to go for those who don't need such a ban?

The Infocalypse is nigh
Former Intel engineer and crypto-anarchist Timothy C. May talked of the Four Horsemen Of The Infocalypse: terrorists, paedophiles, drug dealers and money launderers. These horsemen are demons in our society that can be used to gain public support. In this debate, Stephen Conroy has invoked the horsemen "paedophiles". The tactic for using these horsemen is as follows.

How to get what you want in 4 easy stages:

1. Have a target "thing" you wish to stop, yet lack any moral, or practical reasons for doing so?

2. Pick a fear common to lots of people, something that will evoke a gut reaction: terrorists, pedophiles, serial killers.

3. Scream loudly to the media that "thing" is being used by perpetrators. (Don't worry if this is true, or common to all other things, or less common with "thing" than with other long established systems - payphones, paper mail, private hotel rooms, lack of bugs in all houses etc)

4. Say that the only way to stop perpetrators is to close down "thing", or to regulate it to death, or to have laws forcing en-mass tapability of all private communications on "thing". Don't worry if communicating on "thing" is a constitutionally protected right, if you have done a good job in choosing and publicising the horsemen in 2, no one will notice, they will be too busy clamouring for you to save them from the supposed evils.

All I'm hearing when I read through Clive Hamilton's prose was Mrs. Lovejoy off The Simpsons screeching "won't someone please think of the children?"

1 comment:

Kel said...

An addendum to the entry, it seems that even children's welfare groups are shying away from the filter because of it's inadequacy.

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