Thursday, November 13, 2008

Say goodbye to gaydar

My article on Australia's internet censorship fiasco that appeared in Melbourne's gay and lesbian weekly, MCV.

Say goodbye to gaydar

The Government’s mandatory internet filtering scheme poses a clear threat to the gay online community and should be stopped at all costs, warns Antoun Issa.

Any ‘gay’ websites could be banned under a new mandatory internet filtering scheme proposed by the Federal Government. The scheme, revealed by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, is designed to censor “illegal” and “inappropriate” material on the internet. So far the concept has received a whipping, with many fearing an infringement on their civil liberties.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam is one who shares such concerns: “I’m really concerned about a radical expansion of filtering of the internet, which has always been a free-wheeling place,” he told MCV.

Ludlam echoes fears that should an ill-defined mandatory filtering system be put in place, civil liberties could be infringed upon. “It absolutely could infringe on civil liberties,” he says. “We don’t have constitutional freedom of speech in Australia, we don’t have a bill of rights.”

The mandatory internet censorship is set to cover two layers. The first will filter out content that is perceived as harmful to children, while the second layer will target “illegal material”, and that’s where the blur comes in.

Ludlam has accused the government of being vague about its internet censorship scheme, and has referred to a potential expansion of the blacklist as an ambiguous “grey list”.

“I came out of the exchange with Minister Conroy knowing less about what they’re up to then when I went in. Some of the statements before and since the election have been quite contradictory to what they’ve been proposing.”

The Electronic Frontiers Association (EFA), an online civil liberty group, has been an outspoken critic of the internet filtering scheme. Apart from being an infringement on civil liberties, the industry lobby group has highlighted serious technological flaws in the implementation of such a dynamic internet filtering scheme.

EFA spokesman Colin Jacobs referred MCV to the six tests already conducted by the Federal Government. They show a substantial slowdown of the internet as a result of the filter: “From a network point of view, the best performing only caused a slowdown of 2 per cent, but that was the least accurate filter,” he explains. “The rest of the filters performed better in terms of accuracy, but their speed hit was much greater, so up to 80 per cent accurate, but a 30 per cent slowdown.”

Claims by Anh Nguyen of the Australian Family Association (AFA) on the ABC that the network test caused “only 2 per cent network degradation”, but “was [still] capable of blocking 94 per cent of illegal material” are rebuffed by Jacobs.

“To say that slowdown can be as little as 2 per cent is perhaps true, but misleading, because the level of accuracy is not going to be acceptable to Australian internet users,” Jacobs says.

According to the EFA, the more accurate the filtering, the slower the internet and vice-versa. The association claims Anh Nguyen and the AFA have misused such statistics to incorrectly portray the network filtering system as efficient. In addition to flawed accuracy and network slowdown, Jacobs says any filter won’t truly prevent users from viewing illegal content.

“Even if the government wound back their position to banning child protection as determined by the Australian Federal Police, this sort of filter won’t actually prevent access to that type of illegal material. It’s very trivial to circumvent, if you know what you’re doing.”

The EFA have also hit back at claims by Conroy that similar mandatory internet filtering schemes exist in Europe and New Zealand: “No, that’s completely inaccurate,” Jacobs says. “None of these countries have a government-mandated censorship scheme, they’re voluntarily usually organised by ISPs and have little scope.

“This sort of scheme only exists in a club of countries that the minister would want to draw attention away from, such as Iran and China.”

Any attempt to block pornography and fetishes, as demanded by Family First and the AFA, could have a significant impact on gay and sexual health-related websites. The EFA warns that technology isn’t able to distinguish between pornographic content and sexuality-related issues.

Jacobs: “If they put in a dynamic filtering scheme, these [gay sites] are the sites that would be over blocked the most, because the software is not good enough to reliably distinguish between sexuality and pornography, the technology just isn’t there yet. Sites with sexual health or other issues of sexuality could certainly be blocked.”

Senator Ludlam has similar fears, and places gay websites in the top three category of sites that would be targeted under a massive mandatory internet filtering system.

“Our concern is it would take a blacklist with 800 or 900 sites on it at the moment and create a vast grey list of tens of millions of web pages, which will inadvertently block out material you’re supposed to get such as gay and lesbian health-related information or breast cancer,” he says.

The EFA believe a better, cost-effective and technologically sound alternative could be a PC-based filter that can be tailored to the family need. According to Colin Jacobs, a PC-based filter is free and accessible for families who wish to restrict viewing access to sites.

“That is clearly a better alternative than forcing it on everybody’s throats, and it gives parents control to set boundaries that are appropriate for their children than having the government decide what they are,” he says.

The Greens would prefer the $44 million be better spent on real law enforcement, Ludlam says. “We should be supporting mainstream law enforcement, including the high-tech crimes unit, the AFP to be going after children that are at risk, and we should be supporting education so that parents can take advantage of the tools that are available.”

The Senator says censoring disagreeable views is not the answer: “We shouldn’t be engaging in censorship of people who we disagree with, we should just feel free to disagree with them.”

The supportive stance of the anti-gay Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Family First and AFA has been significant. The three have been campaigning for a mandatory filtering scheme, and there is no doubt that homosexuality-related sites would be high on their hit list.

“There are people out there who believe homosexuality should be outlawed and [gay websites] are exactly the kind of material they’re going to try to get taken offline,” Ludlam continues.

Colin Jacobs has also taken notice of the active participation of the Christian-right lobby in support of the scheme. “The Christian/Family lobby are the only people that are active in the media pushing for this scheme to go ahead,” he says.

As Labor’s mandatory internet filtering scheme is set out to remove illegal content from our computer screens, where does this place gay marriage, which remains illegal in Australia? Ludlam uses gay marriage as a key example to demonstrate the vagueness of Conroy’s internet censorship scheme.

“Gay marriage is the most interesting example because it’s unlawful in Australia, regrettably at the moment, so that’s the kind of material they’re going to be trying to take offline because it’s illegal,” he says.

The GLBTI community should feel threatened by yet another Christian-right attempt to curtail our liberties. Despite 2007 polls indicating the majority of Australians support granting full equal rights to homosexuals, this minority of radicals is hell-bent on ensuring homosexuals remain the second-class citizens of the country.

The mere fact that the Federal Government is prepared to entertain the idea of implementing an internet censorship scheme that could target gay websites is a clear demonstration that Howard-like conservatism has yet to leave the halls of power.

But the Greens have vowed to protect civil liberties: “If they are trying for mass online censorship of tens of millions of webpages by a filter that no one really wants, then we’re very opposed to it,” Ludlam says.

The EFA has plans for “ramping up the activism” in the coming months, depending the government’s reaction.

“Right now they are digging their heels, so we have a bit of a campaign ahead of us,” Jacobs says.

The internet censorship scheme has drawn criticism from all angles, whether it be from a civil liberty, gay rights, political or technological perspective. For all concerned, Jacobs best sums up the Labor scheme.

“This policy is a real turkey.”

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