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Against Australian Internet Censorship? We Must Change Our Arrogant, Flawed Strategy. #nocleanfeed

Mark Newton, a network engineer with Australian ISP Internode, is becoming very well-known as a result of his opposition to the Australian Government's plans to censor the Internet. He's published an article called "Filter Advocates Need To Check Their Facts" today at the ABCs website. I am sure that Newton knows far more than I ever will about computer networks, but if he knew much about politics, he would know that the facts are neither here nor there. His article has a superior, sneering tone all the way through it, and anyone who opposes Internet censorship in Australia needs to drop that attitude and work out how to actually win this argument.

Newton begins:

One of the minor irritants associated with the recent internet censorship debate has been the continual need to correct basic factual errors promulgated by the Government's supporters.

In my observation, it's obvious that the debate has polarised into two camps. One of them is largely populated by people who know what they're talking about and who mostly oppose the ALP's censorship plan; and the other is dominated by woolly-headed adherents to the principle that it'll all be alright if you just close your eyes and wish hard enough.

Oh, poor you! Winning a political debate isn't about getting irritated by "factual errors", it's about assuming your opponents will be dishonest, figuring out exactly who they are trying to win over with their dishonesty, and working out counter-arguments that will actually appeal to those people.

Now, if you were someone who was worried about the Internet, who thought that the Government's plan might be a good idea, but were prepared to listen to arguments on the other side, how would that second paragraph strike you? Everyone who sympathises with you has been written off as "woolly-headed". Could you get any more arrogant? These first two paragraphs of the article reveal how much of political "debate" in Australia is just people telling each other how smart they are and how stupid anyone is who doesn't agree.

One of the most common basic factual errors was repeated on these pages [on the ABC - ed] on November 4, when former Victorian Family First candidate and Australian Family Association researcher Anh Nguyen magically transmuted into a network security expert by suggesting that "ISP level filters are being trialled due to the difficulty of securing PC-based filtering solutions."

While I'm sure the writer has a deep understanding of the needs of his cause, he clearly doesn't have a grasp of the technology he's talking about.

Mr Nguyen, our opponent, is very smart to be aware of the needs of his cause. If we allow the enemy to be aware of the needs of their cause, and refuse to acknowledge that this argument is about politics, not technical solutions, then we remain blind to the needs of our own cause. We need to make sure that people who might support the filtering are not strong enough to persuade the Liberal Party to change its position. If they get strong enough to do that, the Liberal Party will vote for the filter and we will fail.

To put it simply: There is no security difference inherent in taking filtering from the PC and moving it to the ISP. In either case the systems work in the same manner and the same bypass methods are available. And yet, as the recent ACMA-commissioned report showed conclusively, the ISP version will slow subscribers down and reduce the ability of parents to adjust their filtering preferences to suit their own parental judgement about what is best for their children.

No doubt Newton is correct on this. But unless we reach the people the Government is trying to appeal to with the filter, and convince some of them that we have a better solution that will suit their needs, then being correct is meaningless.

How is that better than PC-level filtering? And can we agree, for the
purpose of future discussion, that everyone will be able to bypass it
at will no matter what proponents come up with, and that anyone who suggests otherwise must immediately stop being taken seriously?

No, we can't. I don't judge my opponents in a political fight by whether they are right or wrong. I judge them by how many supporters their arguments are likely to win. That is what is missing from the arguments of people who oppose the filter - a clear understanding of why the Government is attracted to Internet censorship.

It's perhaps not surprising that a family expert who misunderstands technology could get something this basic wrong, because the Minister in charge has blazed a trail of such colossal blinding wrongness that it's probably difficult for listeners to distinguish truth from fiction.

I'm not talking about normal, everyday wrongness. I'm talking about the kind of wrongness that comes with its own theme music and marching band.

Congratulations. We're righter and smarter than the Government. Does that convince one single person to change sides and oppose censorship instead of supporting it? Or does it just let those of us who oppose censorship feel superior?

For example, on page ECA 76 of Senate Hansard on October 20, 2008, the Minister, a man who is paid a lot of money to know what he's talking about, emitted this stand-up howler in reference to other countries that have already implemented his proposed Australian system:

Senator Conroy-- Just to indicate the countries that have implemented along the lines that Abul [Rivni, deputy secretary, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy] is talking about include Sweden, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. This is not some one-off excursion.

In actual fact, none of the countries Senator Conroy cited have anything like what he's proposing for Australia. With the exception of New Zealand, which doesn't filter and has no plans to introduce it, all of the other nations he's ever cited as examples to emulate offer voluntary, non-government, industry-sponsored, opt-in schemes very much like the one which the Internet Industry Association has already created in Australia. Indeed, the only countries which feature government-imposed internet censorship are nations which place more emphasis on opinion suppression than internet access, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

I know the Minister doesn't like those comparisons, but if the shoe fits...

Once again, true, but so what? The Minister is lying or misinformed. SO WHAT? He's a politician. If he were a duck he'd quack, if he were a pig he'd taste great roasted with apple sauce, but he's a politician, so he lies. Everyone already knows this! It's nothing new or surprising for Government Ministers to twist the truth to suit themselves. It's unlikely to surprise anyone. [Edited after comment by tomvoirol - click here to see the comment]

If I was afraid of the Internet and was prepared to censor it, my response would be "Well, if those countries don't censor the Internet, then they should!". Winning cheap debating points doesn't change a single mind.

As the Minister's marching band plays, the chorus repeats, and he inserts his factually challenged international comparisons into virtually every press statement on the subject, so much so that it's clear that he lacks even the most basic grasp of his own policy.

This isn't a unique event for the Minister either. On the same page of Hansard he also misleadingly implied that the ACMA blacklist, intended by the previous government to reference material unsuitable for children, is actually a list of illegal material. Senator Conroy, haven't you read your department's own legislation? Don't you have a duty to know what you're talking about?

The people who support his plans to censor the Internet don't give a damn if he's wrong on the facts and the technology. What they care about is that someone is doing something they think will make them safer. If we don't start dealing with this issue on that level, we will lose.

To supporters of the Government's proposals, I have to ask: Do you honestly believe that Australian parents are so uniquely incompetent that we, unlike literally every other Western democracy on the planet, need to go down the ALP's proposed path to protect our own children? After spending 30 years proving that our nation can successfully raise children in an environment of ubiquitous access to uncensored online services, are you able to explain how profoundly Australian parents must have failed to justify this radical proposal?

What if they do believe that? How will you deal with someone who is not intimidated by your superior tone? What if they just say "Yes. I think we need to censor the Internet."? Where to from there? Do you have a single argument that might appeal to someone like that, any argument at all that might convince them to think again? Or will you just write them off as a stupid, ignorant moron?

And, while I'm asking questions, let me conclude with one more: When we're talking about this, can we acknowledge that although opinions can vary, the facts are inviolate. Is it too much to ask for you to get them right?

Is it too much to ask people who oppose Internet censorship to try and put themselves in the shoes of people who are worried about the Internet? To actually try and consider what it might be like to be someone else? To get out of the headspace of people who agree with you?

I think that we need to reach people with two main arguments:

1) We need to encourage people to use and understand home-based filtering technology. We need to make it easy for them to use it, and to check up on what their young children are doing online. It's fairly simple to make instruction pages or YouTube videos that would teach people just how easy it is to get more control over the Internet. We need to actively promote these resources to people who are worried about the Internet. That means that when someone says they are worried about the Internet, we say:

"Have a look at these tools we've put together. They explain exactly how you can protect your children from the bad side of the Internet."

Instead of:

"You must be a fundy Christian moron! Why cant you get your facts right?"

2) We should focus on how the Government's filter will slow down the sites that EVERYONE uses on the Internet: EBay, Amazon, sites where you can book cheap airline flights, the mainstream media's websites, etc.

At the moment, the Liberal Party and the Green Party are against the Government's censorship plan. The Liberal Party is divided into different groups: some of them will oppose the plan because it is bad for big business (the Internet Service Providers) and some will support censorship because they get votes from reactionary, right-wing Christians. We must make sure we win every single person we can away from supporting censorship. If the forces in the Liberal Party who support censorship get stronger than the forces who are against it, then the Liberal Party will change sides and we will lose.

Click here to see my previous article on Australian Internet Censorship.


www.glubble.com said...

Just check out Glubble!

Keeps the parents happy and the children too. It's safe and most of all it's safe!


CloCkWeRX said...

I have to disagree completely with your conclusions.

Sinking to the level of the people who are spouting irrational save-the-children nonsense is not the way to win.

They have legitimate concerns but poor solutions.

If I were to speed because I was late for work, my concern might be legitimate, but by solution would still be just as poor.

David J said...

@CloCkWeRX, thanks for your comment.

Perhaps you could explain what you think the correct strategy is?

I'm not sure why you disagree with mine. You seem to think that arguing with people who are worried about the Internet is "sinking to their level". I don't think that's the case - I think all politics has to be about trying to change the minds of people who don't agree with you.

My point is that we need to convince these people that Senator Conroy's proposed solution is a poor one, and it would help if we offered our own. If people want to restrict the Internet in their own homes, I don't think that can be compared with speeding.

The Glubble program that's been linked to above seems to be one useful solution - it restricts access to websites that have been pre-approved by parents. I think that's a lot less harmful than having the Government centrally filter all Internet access.

A H said...

Your plan is good. The people who are lobbying the government for censorship are the ones who need to be persuaded.

Politians are idiots. Conroy is evidence of this. They only go for one policy over the other because they think there might be votes in it.

Politians don't think, they simply conform to whatever behaviour helps them to stay in power. It's useless to try and reason with politians.

Anonymous said...

So Newton needs to drop the attitude and figure out how to actually win this argument by empathising with the people he's ultimately trying to convince?

Fair enough, but maybe you should eat your own dog food:

"The Minister is lying or misinformed. SO WHAT? He's a politician. If he were a duck he'd quack, if he were a pig he'd taste great roasted with apple sauce, but he's a politician, so he lies. Everyone already knows this!"

Politicians (like Senator Ludlam) are indispensable allies in this fight and by tarring them all with the liar brush you are doing a disservice to all of us.

lauredhel said...

"My point is that we need to convince these people that Senator Conroy's proposed solution is a poor one, and it would help if we offered our own. If people want to restrict the Internet in their own homes, I don't think that can be compared with speeding."

David J, are you not aware that the government has had a free PC filtering solution available for a long time, and that there's a free helpline for people who want support with it?

I've seen quite a few anti-censorship activists post pointers to this.


David J said...

@a h, thanks for your support. I'm not sure that all politicians are "idiots" (and see @tomvoirol's comment) but they certainly react to what they think will get them votes and support. That's where we have to fight them.

@tomvoirol that's a fair call. I should have been more specific when I made that point.

I could have said, instead "It's nothing new or surprising for Government Ministers to twist the truth to suit themselves. It's unlikely to surprise anyone"

@lauredhel I had been vaguely aware of that. I commented on the Mark Newton article that is the subject of my post, and he replied pointing out that the Government is actually getting rid of the NetAlert scheme. I think that's a very good ground to attack the Government - they're actually making it harder for people who want to control what the Net delivers to their own homes.

Danu Poyner said...

I agree with the author. I'm annoyed by all the IT geeks who cry 'FREEDOM OF SPEECH' and then sit back and think their work is done. Firstly, there is no constitutional right to free speech in Australia, and secondly, some people are genuinely scared by the internet and would put 'safety' about free speech.

To my mind the solution is:

1) Educate those on the fence - make it understand that we share their concerns about a safe internet and explain the best ways to enjoy a safe browsing experience.

2) Attack the Govt's proposal on technical grounds. Will it actually make the internet safer? No. Why not? Explain. Mark Newton's point about the perfect porn blacklist is valid here too. Reiterate from point 1 the ways to enjoy a safe browsing experience.

3) Attack the Govt's proposal on economic grounds. Is it a good use of public money? Why not? What would be a better use of public money? Preferably something that supports Point 1.

4) Finally, an appeal to Australian values. Are we really a nanny state? Aren't we mature enough to deal with the problem on its merits rather than throw our lot in with China et al? Insert Free speech arguments here.

Articulate these points clearly and consistently and the burden of proof will shift back to the Govt and supporters of net filtering to answer.

Danu Poyner said...

I'd also like to add that reading this has inspired me to write my own post on the subject - How to defeat Internet Censorship

David J said...

@Danu, thanks very much for your comment, and thanks for writing an article as well. I think your plan of action is a pretty good one.

On point 1) that you raise, I've seen different opinions from different people. Some people who have raised children say that the best way to keep your kids safe is to be open with them, so they are willing to talk with you about what they say online. For instance, see this comment at Strange Times.

Other people who aren't quite that ready to trust their kids quite that much have pointed out that there is a simple, easy thing you can do: put the computer in the lounge room.

Both these also work with your point 3) - both of these are cheaper, easier, less intrusive solutions than the Government's plans.

I'm not really qualified to speak on your point 2) as I don't know much about the technical side - but that point is being amply covered by Mark Newton and others in a much better position to know than I am.

And I agree that point 4) is in the correct place. These arguments come in once you've started to get people thinking already.

I've just had a look at the article you wrote and I can see we are pretty much on the same wavelength. I fully agree with your rallying cry:

If you think we will defeat internet filtering just by being right or just because the facts are on our side - think again. This is politics. If we don't get properly organised with a clear and consistent message that reaches the people who need to hear it - we WILL lose.

Especially the bit about reaching the people who need to hear it, not just the ones who already agree with us.

David J said...

Whoops! Here's the link to the comment on Strange Times by someone who advocates being open with children so they'll tell you about what they see online: