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! 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.

7 Responses to “Against Australian Internet Censorship? We Must Change Our Arrogant, Flawed Strategy. #nocleanfeed”

  1. 1 Bill Kerr

    I thought the mark newton article was rather good – thanks for the link. There is a lot of political mileage in being expert and exposing the ignorance and falsehoods of Family First and Senator Conroy – up close.

  2. 2 Arthur

    I don’t like the idea of pandering to the worried by advocating use of “opt-in” tools. Parents who relate to children by locking them up instead of discussing what they see, are stuck with the difficulties of making the locks work. Tough. They should consider the other option.

  3. 3 youngmarxist

    Bill, I’m a bit worried by the joy that opponents of Internet censorship take in articles that demolish Senator Conroy and his plan. While they are right on the technical issues, there’s no point in being right if other people want censorship anyway – they’ll just ignore the facts and go on with their own plans.Arthur,  personally I’d agree with you, and there are ways to bring in that sort of attitude to a correct strategy. For instance, one of the commenters at the Mark Newton article I linked to suggest the very simple solution of moving the computer to the lounge/family room.However, if people are going to try to lock up the Internet, I’d prefer them to be trying to do that at home with private software, instead of relying on a central Government filter.

  4. 4 keza

    I thought that the Newton article was more positive than negative.  I reckon that it  was perfectly legitimate to attack  the Minister (Conroy) for being ignorant (or lying). Newton’s comment on the views of Nguyen was in fact far more gentle. We should expect the Minister for Communications to tell the truth and to know what he’s talking about and we should be prepared to give him a hard time if he doesn’t.

    I did notice in the comments to Newton’s article that there were people referring in a rather contemptuous way to “Christians” and I didn’t like that (just as I didn’t like the tenor of many of the attacks on Sarah Palin’s constituency).

    I agree with David that there is a problem in general with the attitude of the “enlightened” intelligentsia to “ignorant” ordinary folk.  At times this can be particularly evident in the geek world. However I really didn’t see any of this in Newton’s article itself.

    David is right that it’s important to unite as many people as possible over this issue and that talking down in an arrogant way and simply dismissing people’s concerns would be wrong.

    However I also think that it’s very important that at the same time, we take a clear stand in favour of maximum freedom for young people. Just as I’m against a nanny State, I’m against nanny parenting.

    Sure,  parents need to play a protective role with their children. We don’t let them “freely” run across busy roads, poke screwdrivers into power points, try out all the medicines in the medicine cabinet.  We also try to make sure  that they get enough sleep, learn to read, and do many things that they may not want to.  But modern parenting is mainly leadership and should involve as little dictatorship as possible.

    Too much protection is as negative as too little. When people raise their concerns about the internet, I think we should point out that (a) the dangers are enormously exaggerated  and (b) that the best way to protect kids is to aim for a very open household where the kids are not at all afraid or embarrassed to share their online experiences with the adults.

    Filtering of any sort (whether home based or ISP based) simply means that one way or another, the kids will find ways to do things in secret.

    In my house the kids always had free access (and in their bedrooms). I found that because I took a relaxed attitude they would often come and tell me about all sorts of things that they had discovered on their computers (including sicko stuff).  It was the same with games, some of which allowed for fairly “brutal” behaviour. (I remember my son and his cousin doing some pretty terrible things with the “Sim families” that they had created. I knew all about it, we discussed it – and mostly it was just well…funny.)

    In fact  these discussion created many, many opportunities for me to discuss all sorts of issues with them.

    So I would acknowledge people’s concerns, while at the same time making both a serious attempt to reduce the level of fear and (related to this) use it as an opportunity to discuss the enormous benefits of freedom – both within the family and in society as a whole.

    I think we should always be clear that we stand for more freedom, not less.  We don’t need to do it in  a preachy way and we certainly should never just put people down for holding backward views. (And we should always come down hard on those who do.)   However, I see no need to dilute our ideas in order to join a united front against internet censorship.

  5. 5 youngmarxist

    Keza, thanks for that long reply, sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to get back to it.

    Do you have any idea (even a gut feeling) about how many people your general line of “open parenting” would appeal to? After reading your comment, I’m feeling that that would be the best way to lead off when you’re discussing this issue. But I’d like to have a fall-back position for people who aren’t convinced by it – my fall-back would be “If you really don’t think you can trust your kids, move the internet to the loungeroom so you can easily see what your kids are doing”.

    BTW this article (cross-posted on Let’s Take Over) has inspired another article by Gold Coast blogger Danu Poyner who sketches out a strategy for winning the Internet censorship argument – it’s well worth a read and a comment. Also BTW, protests are being planned for Brisbane and Melbourne on Saturday, December 13th. See this site for more details.

  6. 6 keza

    It’s all a bit contradictory, actually.  I’m definitely against moralising at people over their child-rearing practices (or their religious beliefs). 

    My point was that  I don’t think that the building of a broad united front against internet censorship should require us to water down our own views about freedom and censorship.  At the same time, it needs to be recognised that by definition, a united front is  composed of disparate groups who have come together  to achieve a goal which everybody wants, regardless of differences about other matters.  Struggle within a united front should not be antagonistic  (I would regard moralising at others as antagonistic).

    To create such a united front, it’s necessary to win people from ‘the other camp(s)’ rather than to just include those who are already convinced.  With regrard to this issue, there are several things which unite people who are already fairly relaxed about the whole pornography issue.  Such people tend to be very at home on the internet.  They would be very upset at any degradation in internet speed, they are  technically savvy enough to know that the filter wouldn’t work properly and also aware of the danger to freedom of speech which would arise allowing the authorities to block ‘illegal material’.

    To broaden the united front beyond the above group(s) we need to be able to win over those who (a) are not relaxed about the pornography issue and (b) are not especially at home on the internet . (These things would be related).

    Many of these people are parents, worried about their kids.  I think that without preaching at them about parenting style a very good starting point would be to argue that the most likely impact of mandatory filtering will be to drive a lot of their kids’ internet activity underground. The consequence be to put the kids at more risk. Parents can’t deal with what they don’t know about.

    A related angle is that the very idea of mandatory filtering implies that parents aren’t capable of parenting,

    Within discussion of these issues it would be fairly easy and natural (I think)  to point out the benefits of giving kids more, rather than less freedom. I also think that some parents require a bit of (non-patronising) reassurance about the “dangerous” internet.  KIds/teenagers are regularly killed on the real highway,  fears of the “digital highway” are to a large extent based on unfamiliarity fed by misleading media reports, flaky research and general hype…eg Mark Bannerman on the 7:30 Report earlier this year referring to the internet as “effectively a monster loose in suburbia.”

    (And yes, suggesting to parents that the kids could use the computer in the living area of the house, could be another way of reducing support for the filter. Although I’m personally a bit uncomfortable about restricting privacy (in the teenage years, anyway), I can see that this could be (a) reassuring to parents (b) allow for good discussion between parents and kids and (c) give the kids a chance to teach their parents something!)

  7. 7 Oscar

    You are acting as if you are proposing a cynical political realism here, but do you seriously think the way to win a political argument is to appeal to the other guys most die-hard advocates?

    The way to win this is to mobilise your base, those who already agree with you but dont know what to do or how to get their voices heard. Engage the fence sitters, those who are unaware they will be effected, with just how this might effect them. Furious outrage, and clear statement of the opponents lies, is a good way to get your base riled. Since when has any political debate been solved by sitting down and trying to appease the base of your opponent (especially when it means disregarding the facts)?

  1. 1 Anti-Censorship attack takes down Australian Government websites at STRANGE TIMES

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