Cowboys and censors hijack child porn debate


On the edge, Flickr image by Miika SCommunications Minister Stephen Conroy told Federal Parliament recently that a six week trial of Australia's mandatory internet filter will commence before Christmas.

'The pilot will specifically test filtering against the ACMA blacklist of prohibited content, which is mostly child pornography, as well as filtering of other unwanted content,' he said in answer to a question from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

Nobody's going to defend child pornography, but the unspecified 'other unwanted content' is another matter.

We are being asked to trust the government to draw a line between 'wanted' and 'unwanted' content. The Australian Federal Police is playing a major role in the implementation of the filter. Revelations about the role they played in misjudging Dr Haneef, and the associated political manipulation, give us little confidence that they will get the internet content filter right.

The terms of the internet filter trial refer frequently to the 'ACMA blacklist'. What is this? What are the websites it includes? We do not know, for the contents of the list are not disclosed. They cannot even be obtained under Freedom of Information, due to an amendment to the FOI legislation. Electronic Frontiers Australia says:

'The Government is yet to explain under what terms the list will be expanded, who will decide what goes on it, and what mechanism will be available to correct errors.'

In a commentary for Crikey last week, Clive Hamilton characterised Electronic Frontiers Australia as 'extremist' internet libertarians. He argued that such groups are 'cowboys' who play by their own rules, and either refuse to acknowledge, or trivialise, the extent of the problem of child pornography.

He said: 'One prominent opponent [of the internet filter] characterised the Government’s proposed restrictions as an attempt to stop people looking at "naughty pictures".'

The protection of children is an emotive issue that cuts across rational debate. Hamilton and other supporters of the filter are presenting a legitimate moral argument, but they are yet to convince the community that it should be given preferential treatment over other moral arguments.

During the war against terror, we gave up some of our freedoms and trusted the government to do what was best for all. Many Australians supported our involvement in the war in Iraq. But when the truth about the case of Dr Haneef came to light, we had a scenario that included incompetence and political interference that led to serious violation of the rights of an individual.

It is hard to believe there are not many unrevealed instances of miscarriages of justice that have occurred in the cause of countering terrorism, and that it could not happen again in the war against child pornography.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: internet filter, acma, clive hamilton, electronic frontiers, haneef, censorship, child porn, pornogr



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Existing comments

Those who would have this filter obviously have no idea how the Internet works. For a start almost every child with computer savvy will by-pass the filter in less than a minute. Second those who promulgate child pornography do not openly disseminate it. They have as much computer knowledge as those who try to catch them, and if it were not for the stupidity of one of their members, they would probably get away with it. This blacklist is censorship, pure and simple, and will lead to ordinary people including children being prosecuted when they resort to bypassing the filter. Children do not surf to sites containing child pornography, neither does the ordinary person, to find them you need to know their URL, if you don't then you will never find them except by accident. I found one purely by accident many years ago, while looking up something on a self-help site. It so shocked me I switched off my computer, it was only later I realised perhaps I should have taken the URL and reported it. Despite spending much of my time online doing research for university I have never found another site again.
GeoffB | 24 November 2008

The scandalous Dr Haneef case is in no way comparable: that was a situation which the then government used for its benefit in the weeks leading up to the election. Protecting children from pornography is a quite different matter and if it is at the expense of surrendering some of our freedom so be it.
David Dyer | 24 November 2008

I have spent much of the last ten years setting up, supporting and training home computer users. The most common reason for purchasing a PC is that children need them for school and leisure. The most common concern of parents is how they can protect their children from threats online. I never suggest a filter because they don't work. School kids across the country have the time and talent to find a way around the filters and as soon as a way is found that knowledge is shared. No Government or Company can stay ahead. I consider filters dangerous because they give parents the illusion of safety and kids are left to do whatever they like in their bedroom unsupervised. The comment that filters are 'better than nothing' is nonsense. If you do not have a filter you will supervise your child's PC activity.
Want your kids to be safe on the Internet then ...
always supervise them on the computer ....
learn everything you can about the computer and the Internet so you understand what your children are doing.
Why not get the kids to teach you and share their interest, it could be the making of your relationship?
Liz Munro | 25 November 2008

Michael is to be congratulated on challenging Stephen Conroy and Clive Hamilton. Can you imagine what our former A-G Ruddock urged on by our still current AFP Commissioner Kelty might have done with the ability to censor yet another channel of communication?

There are plenty of ways to protect children without censoring the net.
Warwick | 01 December 2008

David, the case of Haneef is relevant as it casts great doubt on the ability of the federal police to be trusted to do their job fairly and impartially.

I believe that come election time, the federal police will miraculously discover some child porn site being run by conservatives or fundamentalists, just as they did to pander to the Libs in the Haneef case.

That Rudd has allowed Keelty to stay on in the job demonstrates the incestuous relationship between govt and the AFP.
trevor | 08 December 2008

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