House debates

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


Internet Content

10:49 pm

Photo of Danna ValeDanna Vale (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

One of the matters that is often raised with me by parents in my electorate is their fear that while their children are using the internet they may stumble upon inappropriate material. With the internet sadly awash with violence and legal and illegal pornography, it is clear why parents are so concerned about the need to protect their children from the harm of exposure to such material when science clearly links juvenile consumption of online pornography with the development of sexually deviant behaviour.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a briefing on internet service-provider-level filtering, by a clinical psychologist and expert in trauma associated with war and sexual exploitation, Dr Robi Sonderegger, who explained how the internet amplified the global market for content related to child sexual abuse. He strongly argues that allowing teenagers and young children to be exposed to online pornography is tantamount to child abuse. In a peer reviewed article in the public policy magazine Debate, Dr Sonderegger said:

Early exposure to pornography has now been linked with habitual consumption patterns of heavier forms of pornography as was deviant behaviour later in life.

He also pointed out:

Numerous studies have found significant correlation between the consumption of sexually explicit material and sexual abuse. Pornography is deemed instrumentally causal in the aetiology of sex offending.

According to a recent study of 1,500 internet using youth reported in the Journal of Adolescence, 25 per cent of young people had had unwanted exposure to sexually explicit content, with one-quarter of those exposed being extremely upset and one-fifth experiencing symptoms of distress.

The Howard government recognised parents’ concerns about the harm pornography causes and sought to address the problem through the NetAlert PC based filter. We were also examining the technology surrounding ISP-level filtering before we lost government. NetAlert was launched later in the life of the Howard government before a proper public awareness campaign could be implemented and so it never realised its potential as an important tool whereby Australian parents could protect their children. While a step in the right direction, the weakness of a PC based system is that it only protects those children in households where the parents are responsible enough to install it. The Rudd Labor government came to office with an election promise to provide a clean feed to Australian households, schools and public places through mandatory ISP filtering. It was disappointing that NetAlert was scrapped last year before the government’s new ISP filtering could be rolled out to fill the gap, because this left parents with no effective public tool by which they could protect their children in the meantime.

While it is commendable that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, is seeking to manditorally block the worst of the worst pornography and violence—that is, the illegal Refused Classification material—there is a real apprehension that he may be backing away from the government’s election promise to provide families a feed free of X18+ and R18+ material. Senator Conroy’s recent comments suggesting that the ‘clean feed’ will only block RC raises doubts about how he can claim to meet an election commitment to protect Australian children when websites showing real and graphic sex, extreme violence and degradation of women remain a click away from the average internet savvy nine-year-old.

Governments of both persuasions have sought to deal with so-called ‘legal porn’ by making it illegal to host websites containing X and R classifications in Australia unless they have age verification mechanisms in place. But, rather than comply with a reasonable and responsible law aimed at protecting Australia’s children, the Australian porn trade has simply shifted its operations offshore.

ISP level filtering has the potential to stop the Australian porn trade’s reprehensible circumvention of Australian laws designed to protect our children and also to block other international porn sites. While no-one has said ISP filtering will be a silver bullet, it is a good start to combating the problem of having our children exposed to harmful online porn and will be an important addition to a parent’s armoury. It is disappointing that there appears to be a dangerous lack of understanding of the corrosive impacts of pornographic material on children in particular, which seems to have led to a weakening in government resolve for ISP filtering. Dr Sonderegger strongly contends that:

Juvenile exposure (intentional or unintentional) to online sexually explicit material is a primary risk factor in the grooming of the next generation of paedophiles.

He states that the ISP filtering debate is about:

Whether or not the commercial sex industry should continue to have unrestricted access into the homes and minds of young people.

For years, coalition and Labor governments have responsibly tried to restrict the porn trade’s access to children through magazines, books and movies. Being mindful of the horrific reports this week of the rape of a little eight-year-old on the internet, said to have been watched by over 9,000 deviate predators, I say that now is the time for us to use the technology available to us to protect our children’s use of the internet. Indeed it is our responsibility to do so. (Time expired)


Ashton McAllan
Posted on 4 Jun 2009 10:44 am

What media someone chooses to expose them-self to is the choice of the individual, what media a child is exposed to is the choice of the parent. An ISP filter is gross invasion of the human right to freedom of speech.

Steve H
Posted on 4 Jun 2009 3:03 pm

Danna, please be very careful what you wish for.

Whilst we all abhor such things as the recently reported rape video you mention, it is important to consider steps that will be effective in stopping or limiting the spread of such material.

I urge you to talk to the AFP about this. The particular incident you talk about would not have been affected at all by the type of internet filter that you speak about. Indeed the reporting of this incident mentions encryption and peer to peer networks, both of which are methods of circumventing an ISP based filter.

A particularly important point to consider is the effect of public release of the items which are filtered. You will note that the ACMA list of filtered websites was released to the public almost as soon as the furore erupted around Senator Conroy's proposal to apply it in a mandatory ISP filter.

Unfortunately for Governments, there are enough people on the internet for whom this is a freedom of speech issue. The risk is now very real that they will employ tactics to reverse engineer the contents of a filter -- even if it does not leak some other way.

The consequences of leaking the list are multiple and extend beyond the obvious embarrassment when your leaked list is found to contain dentist's web sites, dog kennels, and school canteen services. Primarily it provides a list of places for people to go who want this stuff. But there are other consequences. The release will attract interest that may allow real perpetrators to hide in the swarm of new "sticky-beak" visitors. This will make the job of law enforcement much harder. If some of these stick-beaks are children, then you have the perverse outcome of directing those whom you seek to protect to that from which you seek to protect them.

The consequences don't stop there. The multiple methods of evading an ISP filter also make it harder for law enforcement to track users of these services.

If you sit back and think about these problems you will quickly come to see the difficulties that arise when you try to block content on the internet. Indeed, it even has a name -- it is called the Streisand Effect. The Streisand Effect is so named because Barbara Streisand took someone to court to prevent them from showing an aerial photograph of her home on an obscure web site not frequented by many. That picture of her home has now been seen by far more on the internet than would have seen it if she had simply shut up about it.

There are a number of positive things that governments could do though:

1) Governments could increase the funding to their police to track down and deal with people who trade in this material. This is in stark contrast to the Rudd government's reduction in funding to the AFP.

2) Governments could legislate to monitor access to a limited number of web sites (confirmed repositories of illegal content, not a random collection of "assumed RC material"). Rather than blocking, this would simply advise some relevant authority that the access was attempted. By not actually blocking the access, reverse engineering would be far more difficult, thus eliminating the problems that make the problem worse.

3) Provide a better advertised access to PC based filtering. This filtering can be tailored to the child, and turned off for adults. Parents are best placed to decide what their children should and should not be able to see.

4) Recommend that home computers be placed in open areas of the home. Children are far less likely to seek out objectionable material in places where they can be observed by their parents (and make no mistake about it, most access is NOT accidental).

5) Provide resources to assist parents educate their children about the *real* dangers of modern life. Most of these dangers, even where they involve the internet in some way, would not be affected at all by any ISP filter.

Remember that the internet contains over a trillion pages, many of which change frequently. Bear in mind that a single web page may be engineered to look different based on who is looking at it. With these 2 issues in mind, it is difficult to contemplate how a simple list of web pages could ever hope to block more than a very small (and indeed insignificant) proportion of that which anyone might find objectionable.

The risks involved are far greater and clearly this is an issue that requires more than a knee-jerk response.