January 01, 2008

YAITM - Yet Another Incompetent Telecommunications Minister

It seems a competent telecommunications minister is hard to come by in Australia. Our new telecommunications minister, Senator Conroy,recently demonstrated that he does not understand a) the Internet; b) freedom of speech; c) the concept of the slippery slope.

Firstly, Senator Conroy’s lack of understanding of the Internet:

Senator Conroy says it will be mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material. - ABC news, 31/12/2007

I would like Senator Conroy to explain how exactly ISPs are going do the above for sites which feature mixed content, such as many forums and discussion boards, youtube, and many other sites where content is primarily generated by users. If a discussion board is white-listed, what happens when inappropriate content is posted by a rouge party? There is no technically feasible way to block content on a per-page basis because of encryption and the difficulty automatically classifying content. For example, how can software tell the difference human anatomy and pornography? Further, the Internet is not just websites. There are non-http traffic such as IRC, bittorrent, newsnet, p2p, MSN, jabber, etc. How are ISPs expected to policy those?

Secondly, freedom of speech, a concept which the Senator does not appear to comprehend:

"If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree." - Senator Conroy

Here Senator Conroy equates freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then declares that since child pornography is evil, freedom of speech must also evil. This technique is called a Strawman Argument. It is at best a misleading way of arguing a point. Freedom of speech in no way justifies nor sanctions the creation or distribution of child pornography. Freedom of speech is not a free ticket to anarchy. I would have imagined a Senator would know this. In addition, Internet filtering you can opt-out of can not combat child pornography. Those who are going to look at child pornography are either going to a) subvert the system; or b) opt-out of it. Despite the fact Senator Conroy is using child pornography as a justification for censoring the Internet, it will do nothing whatsoever to curtail child pornography.

Finally we come to the slippery slope which Senator Conroy is happy to slide down:

"Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road," - Senator Conroy

If Labor is making no apologies for going down the Chinese road with regards to Internet filtering, what else is Labor not going to make apologies for? Will Labor also make no apologies to those who argue that governments which do not listen to their civil liberty groups’ concerns is heading down the despot road?

The Senator is, despite his failings, a politician. He is not without his tricks. He seeks to placate those of us concerned with our civil liberties both now and in the future by allowing us to opt-out. Except opting-out means our names end up on a list somewhere, a list some people will interpret as a list of naughty-people who look at naughty-things. Further, it creates a state of affairs where the average citizen only has access to parts of the Internet allowed by the Government. In North Korea a similar state of affairs exists, bought on by decades of suppressing free press and communication. It has led to the citizen of North Korea to regard their oppressed and dreary lives in a third world country the height of human civilisation, a paradise on Earth. Are citizens of Australia so trusting of the government that we will accepted censorship without seeing what is being censored first?

All in all, Senator Conroy is Yet Another Incompetent Telecommunications Minister. I wish that just for once the Telecommunications Minister has a degree in engineering. Then perhaps he or she will understand the futility of attempting to censor the Internet.