Sunday, January 18, 2009

Under whelmed by poor logic

I have been engaging with a number of people over at Stilgherrian on the subject of the content filter trials. It has resulted in a worrying collection of responses. Many of these responses seem to be coming from IT professionals, and I'd hope that the quality of the logic in their oprogramming exceeds the quality of the logic in their reasoning.

It is also fascinating that my defence of the concept of the trial is interpreted as a defence of al aspects of the policy. Perhaps this is because they incorrectly (as I've already advised) assume I'm some Labor staffer.

My long post there responded to a "blue pencil" argument from Mark Netwon (of whom I've previously spoken.) This has then received further responses.

A James Polley claims at my first step in demonstrating that there is a problem I fail, because the ACMA list contains URLs of websites that would be refused classification AND would be rated R18+ or X18+. That is, he is trying to argue that my claim that "There exists A" is false, because in reality "There exists A AND B". Well, actually it doesn't, and the syllogism "If there exists A and B, then there exists A" is perfectly valid.

Websinthe (aka Keiran Salsone) opines that "The government is filling a void better filled by private industry. If the internet was as horrible and nasty as you claim it is, wouldn’t the free market rush to fill the void? Wouldn’t business interests demand that the internet be made a better place before attempting to do business there?" This is a very interesting and unsurprising point of view in the twenty-first century. It presumes the concept of spontaneous organisation of orthodox economic theory - which conveniently ignores that such essentiel features of the economy like property rights, contract law, and money were not the creation of private economic transactions but of Government either as legislation or courts. What is happening in e-commerce may be massive, but it is still a lot less than it could be because of these confidence issues. Further there are many e-commerce transactions that utlise the full suite of IP technologies but go nowhere near the public internet.

Websinthe also says "The beauty of the internet, and the reason it has expanded so rapidly, is that it defies all attempts to regulate it." Well, the main reason it proliferated was the initial investment by the US Military and its extension into every University as a research network. It remains the creation of Government, it lives on regulation (be that the self regulation of the IETF or all those court cases about protecting domain names).

He continues "Creating an infrastructure whereby a misguided future government or a malicious external power could block whole swathes of internet is just poorly thought out rubbish." Not creating the infrastructure now does not make the task of a future government to block the Internet any easier. The only thing that protects you is protecting democracy itself, and democracy means that process of regular collective decision making, not the ability for everyone to make their own decisions.

Stilgherrian tries the other twist on my claim that the ACMA blacklist contains refused classification material, claiming "It contains content which, in the opinion of an ACMA officer, might be refused classification. Only the Australian Censorship Board (formerly the Office of Film & Literature Classification) and any subsequent appeals courts can actually refuse classification. It’s a flawed process." Mark Newton had another go in the version "so we’re really just trusting a public servant about the whole damn thing." I hate to point out that technically the OFLC is just another public servant, and that classification in general can be processed by other people, for example TV stations do their own classifying. The current law from which the "blacklist" is composed is only really effective in prohibiting content from being hosted in Australia, and as a consequence both are right in thinking that there has not yet been any judicial oversight.

However, were the list to be used to block access to a site, then various parties would be able to challenge that decision. That process would require a court to determine whether the content did meet the appropriate definition - so you get to the same outcome as for the OFLC. It is a pity that we don't know what form the final legislative support for a mandatory filter would look like because that would help us understand how this process would work. But the bottom line is the current list doesn't get a lot of review because (apart from being provided to filter companies) the list doesn't result in anything.

I'm really greatful that Stilgherrian explained to people how BGP based filtering works, basically from the list of URLs to be blocked you determine the list of IP addresses that host those URLs. At the border of the ISPs network you route those IP addresses only off to the filtering solution. So the vast bulk of Internet traffic suffers no degradation. The other good news is that each ISP only needs to know the IP addresses, and they can contract to a security company the analysis of that traffic for whether it is to the dodgy sites. This reduces the cost to the industry and the number of people who have to access the blacklist.

Mark Newton argues that the Government didn't go to the election with this policy. The ALP's "Plan for Cyber Safety" stated;
That is why Labor will 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.

Mark Newton also wants to restate the objectives so that the project fails. I wrote that the objective was to stop people navigating to a URL using a standard brwoser. Newton says this will fail because of the use of open proxies, using an online English to English translation, or getting "circumvention features commited to the firefox search tree." Problem is that none of those is navigating to a URL using a standard browser.

He also gets stuck into the Minister for not working with industry. It is a bit hard to argue this point given the recent history between Newton and the Government. But it does look to me like he's trying, in fact, trying a lot more than other Ministers. Not trying would look like introducing a Bill to impose the mandated clean-feed and be done with it.

Mark also tries to argue that the existing classification scheme doesn't prohibit an adult from viewing RC material. The Attoney-General's website states "RC films and computer games cannot be legally sold or distributed in Australia." To argue that this doesn't prohibit them being viewed is a matter of sophistry, because before it was viewed it had to be sold or distribted - unless you made it yourself. Mark also is fixated on whether the list would leak or not. I guess we agree to differ on that, except that the leaking of the list becomes less of a concern if it is used to block sites. The kinds of people who know how to circumvent the block probably don't need the list.

The person who made tremendous sense was Bob Bain, who points out that we haven't been totally successful in standardising the existing classification rules yet. But as I have also said, I would be really happy to see a solid debate about what the classification rules should be and how the rights of people to access material should be protected. But that should be medium neutral.


  1. I took out a trial with ACMA, planning on talking to them, helping them understand both sides. But it wasn't really possible - I forgot that in all social networks, including industry organisations, you have to work the politics. Even 20 years in telecommunications, on 3 continents and a senior strategist globally in this space didn't mean I got invited to anything other than marketing breakfasts :P
    Heh. *waves*

  2. Hi Verity, I was just reading this post and I was hoping I'd be able to correct some of it for you.

    You claiming that I am ignorant of the legislative and judicial origins of the three frameworks you mentioned when only one of them was a creation of common law and none of them were created by legislation. Property rights were created counter-governmentally and money predates the modern legislative tradition entirely.

    Even banks were a private sector creation.

    You asserted that this filter will increase corporate confidence in e-commerce all you like, but given that there are so few logical reasons to assume this and the evidence shown by last week's Whirlpool incident it is a wrong assertion to make. You can probably go back and edit your post to correct it, I remember blogspot having that facility.

    Any company wishing to host a feedback or consumer-content driven website in Australia will be thinking again after Whirlpool's host being threatened with an $11,000 a day fine merely because of a single post amongst millions.

    That's not confidence building, that's a great reason to move your hosting offshore. That's one way to kill tech jobs in Australia, though if that's your aim it is quite inspired and you should give yourself a pat on the back.

    Just another brief correction, sorry to bother you about it, but the internet as you describe it, created by the military and ensconced in universities, was around for nearly 15 years before it took off as a commercial medium for the private sector. You may want to think of another reason for why the internet took off.

    You're right though, the internet does thrive on regulation. Though you might want to mention that it's predominantly privately organised standards with a history of promoting openness and free flow of information to all.

    I should have said unrestricted instead of unregulated, I just checked the dictionary and found that the two words don't mean the same thing. It makes sense given that most bodies concerned with creating standards for the internet are trying to remove as many restrictions to the flow of data as possible. Have a look at the United States, most times their government has tried to intervene in regulating the internet they have been shut down or called out for being incorrect on their legislative platform.

    It's a slight difference I know but I'm sure you can just pop in there and make the change.

    I agree with you about protecting democracy, that's pretty much the major concern of the EFA and most commentators like myself. It's important that the free flow of communication isn't disrupted and that both sides of arguments, such as those about abortion, can represent themselves without fear of being censored. Political communication being a vital ingredient in democracy.

    For example, if 22,000 people want to sign a petition asking for the government to force ISPs to offer the choice of a filtered internet, they should be able to do so. They should also be given more weight than a petition of only 15 people that specifically asked for mandatory filtering. I went to the trouble of doing the research for you, it's over on my site.

    If over 90,000 people want to sign a petition saying that they don't want mandatory filtering, then they would also be given greater weight than the 15 people asking for it.

    That is, assuming the government likes the format of the petition.

    Thanks for that verity, also, you might want to try using Firefox. It helps busy people like you and me by putting a spell checker through whatever you write before you post it. I find it helps people read my posts more clearly. Unfortunately it doesn't help with other little things like logic, grammar or research.

    Glad to be of assistance.

  3. I know there was a typo in the second paragraph, where I said 'claiming' it should have been 'claim'.

    Sorry for the lack of clarity.