A Clean Feed

Australia is a country that is a long way from pretty much anywhere. For instance, if you had to walk to Australia from the US, it would take you nearly four months if you walked 24 hours per day and didn’t stop for lunch. And then you’d drown because most of the way it’s ocean.

Australia is also a country that lives under the illusion that it somehow has a credible presence on the world stage. I don’t exactly know how anyone here got that idea if they’ve traveled anywhere further than Bali, but that’s what our politicians keep telling us on the television.

Now for a very long time, Australia’s geographical disenchantment has been the source of hefty disadvantage when it comes to its interface with the rest of the globe. These difficulties affect political interaction, commerce, the arts and cultural discourse. This problem has come to be referred to as the Tyranny of Distance (from the title of a book and philosophies of a very famous Australian historian). For many decades, this looked like an insurmountable (or at the very least, hideously expensive) handicap for our isolated outpost.*

“If only,” people thought, “there was a way to communicate instantly with people in foreign lands! If only you could send them movies and music and pictures, collaborate on their projects, talk to them face to face and generally conduct business and social interactions as if you were just a couple of blocks away! If only they could pay you in their foreign money to do all those things via, oh, I dunno, some kind of secure money exchange that happened in real time! If only, instead of you having to sell your shiny gew-gaws to a sparse few customers in your neighbourhood, you could hawk them to a vast population of potential buyers from here to Timbuktu, all from the comfort of your own kangaroo populated home! Wouldn’t all that be just SUPER!??? Wouldn’t that almost instantly solve the difficulty of the Tyranny of Distance? Wouldn’t the democratically elected government of the Great Southern Land break open the bottles of locally-produced superior sparkling wines† and bend over backwards to see that such a magical solution was given every opportunity to work for the benefit of its citizens, its economy and its image as a forward-thinking and innovative political force of the 21st Century?”

Well, Acowlytes, that may very well have happened in some alternate reality where unicorns feast on sugar berries and rainbows grace every dew-frosted morning, but it’s not so, evidently, in the reality which we currently inhabit.

Some of you may have noticed that I’m sporting a new badge in the side bar over there to the right. This is because I’m really pissed-off that our government, notably their mouthpiece, the poorly informed Senator Stephen Conroy, is now trying to institute a level of censorship on the internet in Australia that is equalled in its draconian scope only by the restrictions on the personal freedoms imposed on the citizens of China and North Korea by their respective governments. And why? Solely because Senator Conroy (presumably goaded by a similarly unsophisticated lobby group) is apparently convinced that internet porn is going to flood into Australia and corrupt the minds of our youngsters, turning them into sex-obsessed Satan-worshipping crack-heads, and somehow usher in The End of Days. Or something.‡

I won’t explain the whole thing here – the proposal that has been advanced is so monumentally daft that a schoolkid can see the problems with it (and undoubtedly circumvent it faster than Senator Conroy can tie his shoelaces) – but if you are interested in further reading, the Electronic Frontiers Australia has a comprehensive and rational deconstruction of it on their ‘No Clean Feed’ site. (If you’re an Australian blogger, please go read it, and take some time to mount a protest in any of the manners suggested by EFA. This will affect you).

Briefly, the scheme that Conroy’s office has concocted, spearheaded by people who evidently think that the internet is some form of television, calls for censored content filtering to be imposed at ISP level on everything that comes into the country. It is entirely boggling to the mind that they believe this is even feasible, let alone that it will work. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of intellectual cripples are advising the government on the strategies they are suggesting should be implemented.** One thing is certain, any type of filtering on the scale called for by the so-called ‘Clean Feed’ proposal will bog down the net in Australia to a crawl and make standard commerce a chore beyond measure. Hear me Mr Conroy: these things are already becoming a problem, even before your dumb scheme kicks in.††

The image that leaps repeatedly to mind is that of a bunch of vigilantes from a medieval city deciding to burn all the bridges that lead into town in an attempt to keep out snakes.

For those of us who rely on the net as part of our business, particularly if we engage in significant international communication and data exchange on a regular basis, Senator Conroy’s idiotic concept is lunacy on an unparalleled scale. Our internet system is already over-priced and inadequate, a situation that our new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has pledged to rectify with extravagant overhauls of the current infrastructure. That was all looking like a promising move forward until Stephen Conroy’s torch-bearing villagers arrived on the scene.

And if Senator Conroy’s department being completely wrong isn’t bad enough, they don’t want to be told they’re wrong either. Mark Newton, a network engineer with an Australian ISP, Internode, who wrote an incisive and highly critical appraisal of the Clean Feed proposal (as is his right as an Australian citizen) has been the target of attempted bullying by Senator Conroy’s office in an effort to silence his dissent.

In his letter, Newton completely discredits Government assertions that trials have shown that a filtering scheme is viable. Confronted with Newton’s devastating demolition of their cunning plan, the Government’s response (in what can only be described as a typical last resort of desperate politics), was to promptly distance itself from the whole affair by laying the responsibility for the trials at the feet of the previous Government. So much for informed debate.

So, dear Potential Foreign Business Partner: if you’re thinking of taking your business to China or North Korea because they’re giving you a better deal, remember that, until global warming sets in, we still have better beaches. And Kangaroos. And the flights here are only going to get cheaper, right?

UPDATE: Even though opposition to the Clean Feed is growing (thank Spagmonster someone’s noticed…) Stephen Conroy continues to fail to understand the problem. In this morning’s Melbourne Age he is quoted as saying:

I will accept some debate around what should and should not be on the internet — I am not a wowser. I am not looking to blanket-ban some of the material that it is being claimed I want to blanket-ban, but some material online, such as child pornography, is illegal.

Senator Conroy, you really don’t get it, do you? We all agree that the internet allows some people to gain access to some material that is not desirable by our consensual moral standards. That’s not an argument that anyone has mounted. And there is a LOT of material online that is illegal. That’s not in dispute either. It is magnanimous of you to suggest that you will deign to ‘accept some debate’ about it, but that is entirely beside the point. What you think ‘should and should not be on the internet’ is as irrelevant as what you think should or should not be in people’s heads. You cannot do anything about that. And trying to make the internet into what you think it should be by using your silly filtering system is entirely impractical. It won’t work. It is a DUMB IDEA and it is not the way to tackle the problem.


*Fortunately we had a lot of things we could dig out of the ground that other people were prepared to pay lots of money for us to send to them, so our fate as a permanent continent-sized penal colony was averted.

†Not Champagne, of course.

‡This certainly has to be along the lines of how these people think. You really have to wonder about the magnitude of their obsession. No-one’s going to argue that there is a level of undesirable material out there on the net, just like there is in the real world, but speaking as a person who spends a good portion of every day online, it’s not something that ever has an impact on my usual daily life. You can close your eyes and hide under the covers and pretend it’s not there Senator Conroy, but that don’t change a thing. Why not handle it productively and, oh, educate people better. Oops. Silly me. WAY too hard an option.

**One can only speculate that anyone with any expertise in such matters is cynically accepting Government money in the full knowledge that any system they may be attempting to set up will comprehensively fail. Either that or they’re idiots.

††And aside from that, do you have any idea how much this makes us look like utter inbred hillbillies to the rest of the world?