Monday, July 12, 2010

Unedited Gizmodo article

This is the unedited version of the article posted at http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2010/07/fight-the-filter-thoughts-from-the-pirate-party-australia/:

Stephen Conroy cops a lot of flak. If you're reading this, you've probably already read a plethora of articles outlining various reasons why his plan won't work, why it is a waste of money, why it could actually harm children, and infringe on our freedoms. I'm going to look at things from a different angle and start by telling you why Stephen Conroy is an underrated genius.

Stephen Conroy is right. The filter is so effective that it works before it has even gone live. Forget everything you have heard about how the filter will be ineffectual. I visited several sites on the leaked blacklist, including http://nasty-virgins.org/, http://www.pretty-pretty.info/
, http://lolsonly.org/, http://churchofeuthanasia.org/, http://lolita.bilovers.info, and http://www.fulltiltpoker.com/.

I can categorically state that the worst of the smut on the internet has been reformed by the threat of being filtered and now only hosts cyber-squatters, blank pages, crazy joke sites, expired registrations and… online poker *shudder*. I noticed several urls for the forum of The Ugly Stick, an askew comedy that sadly ended a few years ago. Their comedy was sometimes awkward and a little weird. I liked it though, and didn't think it was worth filtering, but I must have been wrong… My sense of humour isn't great either. Ask anyone I know. Comedy's just not in my nature.

All jokes aside, I took one for the team to prove a point. I did the unthinkable. I visited sites on the list looking to see what was so terrible. I had an inkling that I would find nothing. Honestly, if I thought that there was a chance I would actually find anything gross, I wouldn't have even looked. I believe I am in the same category as almost everyone out there: I don't want to see illegal material, so I'll choose not to look at it. Thanks Senator, but I made that decision all by myself.

I don't want to set up a straw-man argument, so I'll acknowledge that the list I was looking at was 2 years old. I know that's pretty old. Those URLs would be long gone from the current list, surely. It's not like they would only plan on getting one person to review the entire list every 6 months or so, would they? Wait, that's exactly the plan. Well, if Gizmodo publishes the URLs I included in this article, we'll soon find out if they are still on the list when the ACMA takedown notices arrive. Worst case scenario is this article gets added to the blacklist, but that doesn't matter as we can all get around it anyway.

There must not be very many URLs on the list, right? Oh, Senator Conroy thinks it will grow to 10,000 URLs long. Hmmm… OK, that's manageable. I'm sure The Hon Michael Kirby, for example, would love to spend his retirement inspecting over 50 web pages per day for illegal or RC content. That's an easy enough target. I mean, he wouldn't object to having to spend his days looking at content that Conroy himself has described as traumatising, would he? Well it's not all child sexual abuse material, so I'm sure he will at least enjoy getting to decide the grey lines for RC material that isn't illegal. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Of course this still doesn't answer how anyone knows if the "retired judge" that Senator Conroy has mentioned would even see the real list. It also doesn't answer how anyone could assume that a person would report an inappropriate site, when they could probably go to jail themselves for admitting what they've seen. Nor does it answer how 10,000 URLs could be anywhere near enough when one image-based website would surely have hundreds of distinct URLs for all the images that would be hosted.

So that's my little illustration of how impractical Labor's policy on the run is when the details start getting worked through.

Here's an alternative approach:

Senator Conroy claims that his filter proposal outlines a system that is 100% effective against a list of exact, pre-defined URLs. He has also acknowledged that anyone who wants to get their hands on illegal or "immoral" (RC) content will do so. So let's redefine what it is that we should aim to achieve with a filter. What's the aim of it again? That's right, to "protect the children" from harmful content while online. Not to protect children from being abused, mind you. OK, now let's set some parameters. How much freedom should we give up to achieve that final 0.00004% effectiveness for the filter? I'd say none, and I'd hope the government could agree that such a minuscule performance increase doesn't warrant restricting everybody's freedom. In that case, it seems like we could choose different filtering technology as long as it is 99.99996% effective.

At last estimate there are conservatively 24 billion pages on the indexed part of the world wide web. In order to achieve our target "size nines" effectiveness,  I'm releasing some code into the public domain that will filter an innocent surfer's connection to all illegal and RC content with "six nines" effectiveness:
bool isClean(string url) { return true; }
There you go. My filter costs $0 and is implemented already, and doesn't require legislative changes or infringe on our freedom. Conroy's filter costs $43M.

Beautiful, isn't it. In reality, anyone not looking for filtered material has a far lower chance of stumbling across it.

OK, now all jokes aside. I told you I wasn't funny. At least by showing that I wasn't lying about that, you might be ready to trust me about the serious end of this piece.

Our society is great, but there are people out there trying to scare us into thinking that there are menaces lurking everywhere. They are usually trying their hardest just before an election. I once had a hernia. In 2008, 155 Australians died of hernia-related complications. Why are we meant to be scared of terrorists? I have a close relative with ulcerative colitis, and that took out 26 Aussies in 2008. Labor claims to implement "evidence-based policy," so why doesn't the AFP have a Colon Protection Unit? In truth, whether it's terrorists or the scary child abusers, the major parties know that the way to retain power is to scare people.

Well, they scare the hell out of me. The filter won't work. But that doesn't matter. It could work one day, and that does matter. We can't be complacent just because Senator Conroy is a joke and his plan is stupid. Nor can we be complacent because Senator Conroy is stupid and his plan is a joke. If the legislation is passed that allows an effective filter, then the ineffective filter will inevitably be improved over the following years until one day, it actually works.

Senator Conroy has assured the public that it will be legal to circumvent the filter and to instruct others in how to circumvent it. He's assured us that the filter's scope will never increase. Senator Conroy is a liar. When I started studying law, one of the first things I learnt about was parliamentary sovereignty. No parliament can bind the actions of future parliaments. We don't know who will be in power in 10, 20, 50 years from now. If some right-wing, fundamentalist (or more-so) government manages to get elected, I would rather have to fight to stop them implementing a filter than to have to fight to stop them increasing the scope of an existing filter. Especially if the increased scope includes criticism of the filter. Restrictions on the media don't have to work perfectly to create a chilling effect on society. Couple all of this with the government's plans to implement a data retention directive, and we're marching straight into a police state.

Don't panic. It's not all doom and gloom. The saving grace of our societal structure is our preferential voting system. It's what allows people to layer their votes to closely reflect their actual beliefs, rather than just having to choose between A or B or throw away their vote. You can safely vote for small parties like Pirate Party Australia if you want to send a message about censorship, about privacy incursions, about the lack of transparent governance, about harsh copyright and patent laws or about the government's lack of trust that parents can look after their kids.

I wish that Pirate Party Australia didn't need to exist. I wish that every party in the country had the balls and the probity to stand up for the rights that underpin our free society. I wish that when there were corrupt politicians at the helm of major parties, that the other elected representatives in their party would cross the floor and vote for the citizens instead of for the party. Wishes don't change the country. Actions do. So that's why we're here.

You can be sure that there is no way that any future Pirate in parliament would vote to take away freedom of speech or to intrude on our privacy rights. You can be sure that Pirate Party Australia will put the lives of the 2700 Australians per year who die of breast cancer ahead of the mega-profits of drug companies. We'll support business to do their thing, but not at the cost of thousands of innocent lives every year. And you can bet that we'd rather catch the crooks who are actually abusing children than sweep it under a rug and penalise all the innocent citizens out there in the process.

While it's never nice to have to agree with a Howard-era policy, Pirate Party Australia would much prefer to offer filtering software to parents to install on their computer equipment on an entirely optional basis. There is a reason, however, that almost nobody took up the offer for filtering software. The government says the program was a failure, however I'd contend that it was a success: It showed that people aren't particularly interested in any kind of filtering. The best option is education and engagement between parents and their children. It's already happening and it's an insult to all responsible parents for the government to assume otherwise.

I'll just end with a thought for those who still think that a filter should be required to stop those who would go looking for dodgy material on the world wide web. It's something I said at an anti-filter rally in Melbourne a few months ago:
A person is not good, based solely on their actions. An element of choice must be involved.
If people are not given the choice to do wrong, then they are not given the choice to do right. If they are not given the choice to do right, then they cannot be good people. They’re merely robots.

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