Kevin’s march back to the Ruddy Dark Ages

When I voted “Kevin ‘o7” in the Australian federal election I didn’t expect John Howard MarkII, but it seems that’s what we got.

It was no secret in 2007 that Kevin Rudd had done the fashionable thing and “found God” somewhere along the dark road that is Labor politics in Australia, but now his government is fixing to introduce internet “filtering” laws that the Ayotollahs would be proud of.

In fact, the Chinese regime could possibly learn a thing or two about using moral panic as a weapon against the unholy recesses of the world wide web of filth that’s endlessly repeating itself across the reaches of cyberspace.

Today, I read a disturbing piece in New Matilda which is rapidly becoming one of the few sensible voices in the Australian media wilderness.

Christian Lobby: The New Lions of Clean Feed

The news that so alarmed me is that an ultra-conservative Christian group is now dictating a national firewall policy that will have far-reaching consequences for what Australians can legally download and view over the internet.

The issue is getting a lot of media play in Australia, much of it written as op-ed pieces by pro-censorship lobby groups.

The original Labor policy, unveiled during the 2007 election was a simple motherhood statement, predicated on the fact that it would “protect children” from “harmful material”.

“Provide a mandatory clean feed internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.”

Who could disagree with this idea? Of course we want to protect children from harmful and inappropriate material. But what is harmful and inappropriate? The most obvious first thought for most sentient adults would be child pornography; second for some would be porn in general and then there might be another layer of categories that could include violent material, instructions for rocket-making or things that upset particular subsets of adults like left-wing politics, aetheism, or religious views not our own.

That’s the trouble see…one person’s passion is another person’s poison.

Let’s get the child porn thing out of the way quickly. Of course, it stands to reason this is gross, illegal, inhuman, abhorrent, and everything else. But is it really a problem on the scale that the authorities would have us believe? According to the usually reliable Wikipedia (kidding folks!), the proportion of porn on the net that’s child-related is about 20 per cent. That seems high to me, but I don’t know any better.

I’m relying on Google here, but this BBC story from 2004 is typical of the way that the issue of child porn is reported and it suffers from all the pitfalls of this type of journalism:

Child porn crimes have risen by 1,500% since 1988 and new internet mobile phones could make things even worse, according to a children’s charity.

The internet is largely to blame for the huge rise in child porn offences, according to a report by NCH, formerly National Children’s Homes.
The charity says 549 child porn offenders were charged or cautioned in 2001, compared with only 35 in 1988.  [Net blamed for rise in child porn]

There’s always an element of doubt in stories about crime statistics; there’s an element of statistical  “creep” and the fact that the law changed making offences easier to investigate and prove. There’s all sorts of reasons why such an alarming jump occurs, but also look at the raw numbers. Criminologists with any moral compass will always qualify any such numbers when asked. And how do you interpet a claim that up to 35000 “attempts” to access child porn sites are blocked every day in the United Kingdom? Well, I’m not sure, but there’s a lot of questions to be asked by any reporter who takes these figures on face value. One place you might start looking for an alternative approach is Susie Bright’s website and here [and a note of caution, it is probably not suitable for children, or adults with a prudish disposition]

What figures I was able to find, from Make-IT-Safe.net were alarming, indicating over a million child porn images are in circulation at any one time. But again, a word of caution, the figures support the aims of the group. You can read John Carr’s 2004 UK report online. Even Google Scholar does not turn up a lot of useful information on the quantity of material, or the real incidence of offending.

So that I can’t be accused of covering up the extent of the problem, here’s an excerpt from anothe report by John Carr which attempts to outline the scale of child sexual abuse images in circulation

In 1995 Inspector Terry Jones of the Greater Manchester Obscene Publications Squad in the UK was involved in seizing a total of 12 hild pornographic images and all of them were either in the form of photographs or videos. In 1999 he seized 41,000 child pornographic images and all except for 3 were on computers, with almost all of the images concerned originating on the Internet.

Police forces active in this area in many different parts of the world tell a similar story. There can be no certainty about the volume of child pornography in existence. By its very nature, it is an illegal item. Consequently no one will declare how much they have or how much they are making. Moreover, because of its durability, there is little doubt that a great deal of child pornography currently in circulation can be 20 or 30 years old and, therefore, it is hard to distil modern trends. [Carr report, nd.]

It seems here we’re talking about hundreds of offenders being caught and prosecuted, not tens of thousands, or millions. I think this helps to put the problem in perspective. It also suggests that current laws and police actions are being effective. Why then the need for alarming headlines and dodgy statistics?
The bottom line is that child sexual abuse exists and pre-dates the internet. It is a social sickness that we must eradicate, but creating a vast machine of censorship that also catches legal adult material and many other categories of internet content is perhaps not the most efficient way of doing it.
I was pleased to come across an electronic preview of a book called Beyond Tolerance by Philip Jenkins, one of the pioneers of social/moral panic studies. He puts a very reasoned view that I am happy to endorse:

I now find myself involved in a project that could well arouse anger about sexual materials online and could conceivably be used as ammunition in political campaigns to regulate the Internet and to repress obscenity and/or indecency. The difference, of course, lies in the area of consent, where a clear distinction exists between material depicting adults and that focusing on children.
At the same time, I want to differentiate sharply between such [chld porn] productions and the world of adult materials, where the issues are utterly different. [Beyond Tolerance]

The online preview is a remarkable read, it outlines the ethical dilemmas in doing the research necessary to put a factual case in the public arena, but sadly, it brought me no closer to having any hard data (numbers) to work on. I should caveat that though by adding that Jenkins does make the point that arrest/conviction figures are perhaps the tip of a much larger iceberg. I simply don’t have the facts to argue either way here.

[Note: I would be interested in hearing from readers who have reliable data on child pornography from reputable studies, if you can send referrals, I’d appreciate it]

There’s a lot wrong with attempts to systematically filter internet content on such a huge scale and we’re talking about millions of users i this context.

Firstly there’s the technical complexity and by some accounts the whole process is so complex that it’s almost bound to fail on principle.

Would InternetWatch actuallyWORK?

Typically, filters will also block material that is perfectly legal and not offensive, such as happened on the Vodafone network in Czechoslovakia a few weeks ago. Then there ‘s the voluntary attempts to rid ISPs of child porn sites, like this one reported in the New York Times in July 2008. With all this private effort going on, why does the Rudd government feel the need to ratchet up the moral panic and jump on this shaky bandwagon?

The simple answer is politics. Being against child porn and “harmful” internet material makes you electorally popular with MoR voters.

The background on this is well covered by New Matilda, which has taken a dispassionate, but partisan, approach. Cleaning up Australia.

One clear issue is that the proposed Australian system is much wider than child pornography and sexuall-graphic material in general. The filters are likely to be set up to cover a much broader range of sites. First they came for the perverts. Conroy’s web.

There is in fact a “black list” already maintained by the Australian Communication and Media Authority, but the problem is, it’s a secret list. There’s more detail at Libertus.net.

We don’t know where this list is likely to end and we don’t know how far the bans on URLs is likely to extend. This has to be unacceptable.

3 Responses to Kevin’s march back to the Ruddy Dark Ages

  1. rob says:

    Do you know of McKee, Albury and Lumby (2008) The Porn Report, Melbourne: MUP?

    There’s a chapter on Children and Pornography (149-65) and one section (150-6) in it discusses child pornography (or child abuse material). They refer largely to the Jenkins study, but also to an interview the head of a QLD police taskforce into sexual crimes against children. You might get some useful info there.

    I remember first seeing that section as an extract published in the Oz last year, too, so you may be able to track it down that way. The book as a whole, though, might also have things to add to your general discussion of censorship, etc.

    Also, it’s worth reading what Australian ISP iiNet has to say about the forthcoming filtering trials and how they’ll respond to them:

    http://www.iinet.net.au/customers/iinews/internet-filtering.html

  2. rob says:

    damn smilies!

    A slightly more recent news item from iiNet:

    http://www.iinet.net.au/customers/iinews/news_0109.html#news

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