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Back December 4th, 2008 Forward
An open letter to the Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy.

Dear Senator Conroy,

Thanks ever so for your lovely little letter and PDF file, explaining why the idea of filtering all internet content coming into Australia at an ISP level is a Good Thing. I just have a few small concerns in response.

Firstly, the existing Australian regulations on internet hosting don't stop restricted content from being out there. They never did in the first place, and the public feedback on such things when they were originally created was they were going to be about as effective as a chocolate teapot in doing so. All it did was send the naughty stuff offshore - where it promptly got about five times as expensive.

Secondly, and more importantly: the internet was never intended with children in mind. The protocols it runs on were created with the aim of providing a communication infrastructure which would keep working in the event of a nuclear war. The applications which are used on the internet were mostly created by adults, for adults. Even the metaphor for the internet, the "information superhighway", points clearly to it not having been intended as a place where children could wander freely without supervision. It is and always was primarily an adult-oriented space.

I realise a lot of people have problems with this concept. Let me see whether I can put it in terms most people could understand. The internet, by and large, is rather like the bar in a hotel. It's a place where adults are expected to be socialising. Yes, children are welcome, but they're not expected to use the full range of services, and there will generally not be the effort put into making them welcome that is common in (for example) a fast food restaurant. As an expected adult space, there isn't the effort put into policing behaviours to make things child-friendly - topics of conversation will be adult, as will the language used. If enough parents with children bring their children regularly to the pub, the licensee may go to the trouble of creating a separate space for the families with children. However, any efforts by a licensee to restrict everyday activity within the bar whether or not children are present would go down like a lead balloon.

Filtering all incoming data at an ISP level will create more problems than it solves. For a start, it's attempting to do what the internet itself was designed to work around: interrupt the flow of information from A to B. There's an axiom for this online: the internet will always find a way around what it interprets as damage. It may help to know in the context of the axiom, "the internet" means not just the computer networks which underlie things, but the whole social network balancing on top of it. "The internet" is not just the computers, or the protocols, or the websites. It's the computers and the protocols and the websites, chatrooms, MMOGs, email networks, newsgroups, messaging services, IP tunnels, VPNs, and above all the people making these things happen. It's an emergent phenomenon; attempting to restrain it is not going to work (or at least, not for very long).

The best way to ensure children are safe online is to provide adequate supervision. Returning to the metaphor of the bar, it's a generally accepted social truism that a bar is not an appropriate place to drop off a child for supervision; the internet has to be regarded in the same light. Yes, the internet is an educational resource. So is a university library (to name another place where children aren't expected to be running around freely).

While the computer used to access the internet may have a screen, it isn't a television. While it may have a keyboard, it isn't a piano. While it may well have games, it isn't a game console. While there's plenty of information on offer, it isn't a set of encyclopedia. The computer children use to access the internet is a portal into a space as adult-intended as a bar, a casino, a brothel, a university library, a workplace, a laboratory, a parliamentary chamber, a military base, and an industrial complex. In a space intended for adults, children are by and large not welcome without supervision. The problem, to be honest, is that too many people confuse the internet with a television, a musical instrument, a game console, an encylopedia and a babysitter.


Meg Thornton

(I sent a somewhat edited version of this screed as a response to the email I received from the Minister's office.)

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