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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.

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