Suffer The Little Children

Posted on 24th December 2008

Following on from my previous post regarding the Internet Watch Foundation, a fellow Perl programmer, Jacinta Richardson, recently posted on her use.perl blog regarding currently proposed legislation in Australia. To get a bit of background on the subject, read the articles she links to in her post, before reading her reply.

For myself, working in the filtering industry, I'm well aware of the fact that it is impossible to get filtering 100% accurate all the time. Even our Service Level Agreements (SLAs) don't state that, as it is just too difficult to manage. We get very close, and our filter systems are considered to be the best in the world, but we'll never be 100% perfect. As Jacinita highlights in her reply, the owners of the bad stuff change their domains on a regular basis, swap IP addresses and even server locations to avoid detection. In some cases the server locations are beyond law enforcement agencies as they are in countries that have limited or no resources to shut down these operations.

However, the part that irritates Jacinita and the reason why I find objections to this kind of thing important, is the blindly ignorant "you're either with us or with the terrorists" style of retort from officials or self-appointed puritants for the world. Having children of my own, I would never want them to be subjected to indecent or illegal material on the internet. However, the vast majority of that kind of material is very unlikely to be something you would accidentally stumble across. Putting in aggressive filters to scan absolutely everything all of the time, is rarely going to stop those wishing to find that kind of material, and is likely to block more innocent websites than potentially harmful ones. Using scare tactics and accusing your opposition of advocating child pornography is insensitive and irresponsible, and only serves to make you and your arguments look ignorant.

I would be interested to know what recourse a company or individual has on the Australian government, should they block an innocent website that is hosted outside of Australia? The chances are none, and who would you complain to anyway? If your domain is blocked, you'll never get through!

In her reasoning, Bernadette McMenamin uses examples of countries such as the UK who use filtering. Yes we do, and the self-appointed body that tells us what we can and can't see also makes some stupid mistakes and disrupts internet use for the whole country. For all the protection these self-appointed bodies provide, I would rather see more effort put into shutting down the source operations and protecting the children from being abused in the first place, rather than waiting after the fact for government officials to wave their hands limpy, crying "oh, how could this happen, let's ban the internet for children so they can't see it!".

McMenamin claims that British Telecom block 35,000 attempts per day to illegal material. However, how many of them were to truly illegal material and not "potentially illegal" as was highlighted by The Scorpions/Wikipedia incident? How many requests were made by children accessing the content? How many prosecutions were made from these access attempts? How many of the block domains/URLs were taken down? It's easy to throw numbers around, but without substance they are worthless numbers.

Jacinta picked up on an interesting quote by McMenamin - "[T]hose who are aware [of all the facts] are, in effect, advocating child pornography." So by McMenamin's own admission she must be ignorant of all the facts, otherwise she too would be advocating child pornography. Forrest Gump has a reply for Bernadette McMenamin - "Stupid is as stupid does."

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