Australia Edges Us Towards the Digital Dark Ages


Last week, on my opendotdotdot blog, I was praising the Australian government for its moves to open up its data. I was rapidly – and rightly – taken to task in the comments for failing to mention that government's efforts to impose direct, low-level censorship on the country's Internet feed.

Although I was aware of these moves, I wasn't quite up to date on their progress. It seems that things have moved far and fast:

The Australian Government today announced further details of its approach to improve safety on the internet for Australian families.

The Government’s approach to cyber-safety has been informed by the Government’s trial of internet filtering and extensive industry feedback about the most appropriate way to improve safety online.

The cyber-safety measures announced today include:

1.Introduction of mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused Classification (RC) –rated content.

2.A grants program to encourage the introduction of optional filtering by Internet Service Providers, to block additional content as requested by households.

3.An expansion of the cyber-safety outreach program run by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Cyber-Safety Online Helpline – to improve education and awareness of online safety.

As you will notice, the Australian government justifies the moves by employing that tired old fallback of “protecting families” online. This is a kind of corollary to Godwin's law: as soon as “the children” are invoked by politicians in the context of the Internet, you know that they don't have any substantive arguments to support their arguments.

Providing families with effective options to screen out unsuitable material is of course important, and these already exist. For example, search engines allow a wide range of filtering of their results and there are various desktop programs that offer further blocks on material. That's on top of ever-increasing legislation aimed at outlawing and taking down certain kinds of content permanently. So bringing in this extremely heavy-handed approach is not necessary. Not only that, it's counter-productive, because there are a major problems with the Australian proposal.

The first is that it won't actually stop people accessing illegal or unsuitable content. As fast as sites and IP addresses are blocked, others will pop up in an online arms race that is unwinnable by leaden-footed bureaucracy.

Another issue is that by providing a compulsory filtering of the feed, the Australian government could easily lull parents into a false sense of security, and actually *increase* the risk of children being exposed to dangerous material. As with all kinds of online dangers, the best protection is for parents to be actively involved in the children's exploration of that world, and it's foolish to send out the message that the government is now “tackling” this problem, because many people will draw the inevitable conclusion that they don't need to worry about the issue any more.

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