PORNOGRAPHY: by Tim CannonNews Weekly
Canberra drags its feet over internet porn
, August 4, 2007
What can governments do to make the internet safe for children? Tim Cannon reports.The internet-porn industry (both legal and illegal) continues to grow at an alarming rate. However, far too little is being done by governments to stop, or even moderate, the spread of pornography, or to combat its harmful effects, especially on children.
Paradoxically, Australia is in fact a world-leader in the area of internet safety for children. Which makes it puzzling that the Federal Government's response to the pornographic epidemic has been non-committal or sluggish at best.
For several years, the Howard Government has indicated it would consider implementing a large-scale internet filtering policy, with two alternative possibilities: mandatory filtering at the ISP (internet service-provider) level, or optional filtering at the PC (personal computer) level, which the government would make available to all families.Detrimental
In the past year, Federal Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, has increasingly indicated that her department would favour PC-level filtering, maintaining that ISP-level filtering technology was ineffective, and detrimental to internet performance.
Speaking at the Australian Personal Computer Awards in March 2007, Senator Coonan suggested that ISP-level filtering was limited to simple black-lists of known offensive sites, and could not moderate non-web content, including chat sites. Furthermore, she said that ISP filtering could not be tailored to individual family needs.
But according to David Ramsay, who heads the internet filtering company I-Sheriff, Senator Coonan's concerns are unfounded, given the current state of filtering technology.
Indeed, Ramsay insists that not only is the effective filtering of internet content (including non-web content) possible, but this technology is currently being employed both in Australia and overseas, with great success, and with negligible impact on network performance.
And while he admits that some instances of incorrect filtering — by either allowing restricted content to slip through the filter, or by inadvertently blocking "safe" content — are inevitable at the ISP level, Ramsay points out that any
filter, including a PC-based filter, is prone to such shortcomings, an unavoidable consequence of the immensity and ever-changing state of the internet itself.
Finally, to civil libertarians who protest against the imposition of censorship through ISP-level filtering, Ramsay points out that ISP filtering technology readily accommodates varied levels of filtering for different age-groups, as well as a secure filter-bypass function which adults may choose to activate, allowing unfiltered access.
Meanwhile, Senator Coonan's proposal to provide free PC filters for families, although it marks a positive step towards better protection of children, runs the risk of leaving far too many children unprotected from harmful web content and inappropriate internet services. The reality is that many parents are unaware of, or unconcerned about, the dangers of the internet. Many more are unable to set up and adequately maintain PC-based filters.
Several trials of ISP-level filtering have taken place in recent years, although Ramsay has voiced concerns that these trials have been poorly conducted. A further trial is scheduled for August this year, and a tender for the contract to run the trial was issued last month.
The issue of protecting children from harmful internet content has predictably provoked a great deal of point-scoring and finger-pointing from both sides of the political divide, the war of words achieving little in terms of practical outcomes.
Part of the problem is a lack of clarity regarding the ways in which filtering is conducted. Conceptions of both "ISP filtering" and "PC-filtering" carry with them significant political baggage, with each being used as a sort of flag, waved by politicians to declare their ideological allegiances.
Far from facilitating sound, practical policy, this flag-waving has simply obscured from view the most important issue at hand, namely the protection of children. Vital to achieving concrete progress, therefore, is a recognition by all sides of politics that the protection of children is paramount, with all other considerations secondary. Which is why the Federal Government's policy in favour of PC filtering is flawed.Oppressive
In real terms, Australian children enjoy some of the best internet access in the world, spending increasing amounts of time exploring its vast reaches. Surely, it is not excessive — much less oppressive — to recognise a grave social responsibility to protect such children as best we can from the harm which may befall them in this virtual landscape.
Safety zones outside schools remind us of the duty of every member of society, not just parents, to ensure safe passage of all children (especially those whose parents cannot be physically present) through a potentially dangerous thoroughfare.
In a similar way, ISP-level filtering seeks to make the internet safe for all children, especially when their parents cannot be present. Education and supervision are also vital, and should be encouraged; but where they fail, ISP-level filtering can pick up the slack for all children.
Minor inconveniences incurred by the rest of the population pale into insignificance when compared to this duty we owe to children.
— Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.