Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies: Review of Internet Content Regulation

Submission from Robin Whittle 29 April 1999

This file, scit_rw3.html, can be found at http://www.firstpr.com.au/issues/

My extensive submission to this Committee last January (scit_rw2.html) is also available at the above site.  This dealt in detail with many of the issues raised by this bill, including a systematic analysis of which areas of problematic human activity are best dealt with by centralised regulation, and which are best left to individual defenses or choices.

A Word 6 RTF (no macros!) version of this submission is available: scit_rw3.rtf

For all the latest on this matter and links to the Committee and the bill see the EFA site: http://www.efa.org.au .

Robin Whittle First Principles Consulting
11 Miller St Heidelberg Heights Vic 3081 Ph 03 9459 2889 Fax 03 9458 1736

Email rw@firstpr.com.au World Wide Web: http://www.firstpr.com.au
 

Summary

This bill has been hastily written, without consultation with the affected parties, in defiance of what is now well known about the Internet's structure and the impossibility of reliably blocking certain types of communication.  (I explained these issues personally and in submissions to the ABA Online Investigation in April 1996, and the 1998 CSIRO investigation confirms the impossibility of reliably implementing a refused access list.)

The 9 days available for public comment is completely inadequate.

There are a large number of problems with the intent of the bill, and with regard to how it would operate and be circumvented if it ever became legislation.

Attempts to forcibly regulate Internet communications are just as impractical and generally misguided as would be a similar attempt to regulate the content of phone calls, or of postal packages and letters.  Similarly any attempt to restrict people's ability to communicate by phone or mail with particular telephone numbers or addresses would be easily circumvented by ordinary users.  In the case of the phone system, the postal system and especially the Internet, any such attempts at content regulation are:

  • Easily circumvented, including by casual users and unsupervised children.
  • A strong reason for businesses and individuals to conduct their operations physically outside Australia.
  • An unjustifiable burden on operators of the network (phone, postal or Internet) and so a burden on all users.
  • Inviting disrespect for the law, due to its high costs and its failure to achieve its aim: to reliably prevent certain forms of communication.
  • It is completely wrong to consider Internet communications, including that subset referred to as the World Wide Web, as analogous to television, radio or mass print-media.  It is a point-to-point, bi-directional, packet-based network - closely analogous to the postal system. User access of web-based material is highly selective and deliberate.

    No comparable content regulation regarding adult material (censorship) is proposed for the telephone or postal networks, because it is universally accepted that children should only use these networks with adequate adult supervision.  Exactly the same approach should be and generally is applied to Internet communications.

    Just as with the telephone or the postal service, intermediate call or mail redirection sites would make a mockery of any attempt to block calls or post to or from specific numbers or addresses, any such Internet blockages are easily circumvented by the user configuring their browser to access the banned material via a proxy-server (or anonymising service) in another country.  These are readily accessible and if the bill became law, a thriving business would develop in overseas countries for such services for the millions of Australian users seeking relief from the government's restrictions.

    The number of web sites (or portions thereof) which the ABA might be asked (including by anonymous persons) to classify and add to the refused access list is very large indeed.  The figures would be in the tens or hundreds of thousands.  It is administratively impossible to process such quantities of requests in a suitably timely matter.  It is impossible for Internet filter systems to block such large numbers of IP addresses or sections of web sites.

    Even if blocking was technically possible, it would be a simple matter for an individual here or overseas to generate fresh sites which the ABA should (under the current bill) add to the refused access list.  This could be done on a semi-automated basis using free web-site services such as http://www.geocities.com at a rate which far exceeds the ability of the ABA or the industry to keep up with.

    It is neither possible nor desirable to forcibly regulate the content of Internet communications to be "child-safe" - which is the stated aim of this bill.

    Given the widely known and thoroughly researched impracticality of reliable blocking of access to particular web sites, or particular material on a web site, it must be concluded that one or more of the following points are true:

    1 - The proponents of this bill are willfully ignorant of the technical impossibility of reliably blocking Internet communications (although they no-doubt understand the closely analogous problems in achieving this with the telephone or postal system).

    2 - The real intention of the bill is to frustrate and limit adult communications, in the guise of protecting children.

    3 - The bill is known by its authors to be farcically impossible to implement, but is nonetheless presented as if it was feasible and widely supported in order to convince one or more key persons that the Government is serious about "cleaning up the Internet".


    Parliament should defer consideration of the bill until it has been analysed more carefully by Internet users and industry participants, and by those millions of people who do not currently, but probably will, use the Internet in the future.

    The current bill appears to be a deliberate attempt at convincing those few people (including parliamentarians) who think that blocking of web-material can be reliably achieved that the Government is serious about Internet content regulation.  If the Government was serious, it would consult carefully with industry to ensure that its proposals enjoy wide respect.  The urgency of this bill's introduction, and its timing with respect to the GST debate is a shameful episode in Australia's political history.

    Comparable legislation in the USA has been found to be unconstitutional.  Only a few authoritarian countries such as China, Singapore and some Arab states have attempted similar restrictions.  The Minister is incompetent for proposing legislation with such clear operational difficulties and which is unprecedented in most developed countries.

    The best way to protect children is to encourage adult supervision. Filter software configured and installed by the responsible adult may be useful as well.

    This bill is intentionally censorious and is similar in spirit to the Catholic Church's attempts five hundred years ago to ban or control printing presses.  This censorious intent and effect is at odds with the wishes of the great majority of Australian citizens.

    Given the shortage of time and the lack of acknowledgment from this Committee regarding my last submission (which about eighty hours work), I have only been able to prepare a summary of what I would provide if more time were available.

     
    I broadly support the many submissions which the Committee has received pointing out in greater detail the folly of this bill.
     
     
    Yours sincerely
     
     
     

    Robin Whittle

    [End.]