This week the crusade to clean up the internet reached a head.

For months the Canberra-based Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has been battling a rear-guard action to keep the Rudd Government's promise of an anti-hardcore-porn net filter trial on track.

Most of the action was deep in the bowels of Parliament House and (for most of us) equally buried on the tech blogs.

Some in the internet industry are waging a stinging media campaign to kill off the trials.

Vehement arguments against the idea in the tech press have been spilling into the broadsheet news pages. The Get Up 'Save the Net' campaign is driving a tide against the filter, as Twitter proves its worth in spreading ill-informed gut-level protest. Public opinion is shifting.

Last month, ACL Managing Director Jim Wallace went public in a press release saying it was “crucially important and entirely logical that the Federal Government proceed with 'real life' internet filtering trials despite the claims of those who have already pre-judged filtering”.
The ACL cited the results of the 2005 NetAlert Ltd trial show and concluded “that it is both sensible and responsible to continue with the trial process”.

"Our children can only benefit from the rapidly improving technology, including safety features, which is an attribute of the online world," Mr Wallace said.
Most Christians no doubt welcome the idea of bringing the internet into line with the classification system for magazines, video and TV.

As ACL spokesperson Glynis Quinlan told me this week: "In newsagents, under 18s aren't given access to this materially… why should the internet be exempt and completely unclassified?".

But this is where the ACL are unfortunately blurring and confusing the issue - and where this moral and public policy debate just starts to get really juicy.

Illegal and restricted material are two different things. And likewise the Government’s plan includes parallel ‘mandatory’ and ‘optional’ filtering plans.

The week's political stoush

The political debate over this idea goes back to the lead-up to the 2007 election when Kevin Rudd was desperate to win back the working-class Christian vote - especially the lost Roman Catholic battlers. To bolster its conservative credentials, Federal Labor criticised the Howard Government for not adequately addressing cyber-safety and committed to providing "a mandatory 'clean feed' internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children". 

However, reading the secular press this week, you'd think the anti-porn filter was dead and buried after Senator Nick Xenaphon declared he was now against the idea.

The headline in one tech press screamed "Aussie Internet censorship plans scuttled"

But Xenaphon is just one vote in the Senate.

As pointed out on Crikey, most of this week’s press reports have been just plain silly.

Look at the Senate numbers: with the die-hard libertarian Greens always likely to oppose the plan, this stoush is about maintaining Labor and Liberal support. The cross-benchers are irrelevant.

The filter will only pass in the Senate if both major parties stay on board. So at the end of the day public opinion will decide the matter.

Caught between its business and moral majority constituents, the Liberal party has left themselves wiggle room to back the filter. So far they are only asking for Labor's trial to be independently audited. And that's fair enough.

Christian dilemma

Given conservative Christians are a key voting block - especially for the Liberal Party, opinion in the pews will be critical to deciding the fate of this idea.

And here is your dilemma.

1. Speak out and our churches may end up embarrassed as unthinking Luddites crusading for an unworkable and dangerous form of censorship.

2. Shut up and we look like gutless dupes of powerful vested interests, including the porn industry. That's certainly the ACL's take on the church's silence.

"There is a campaign out there to bamboozle the public, and Christians are vulnerable to this," ACL's Glynis Quinlan told Stop Press. "The issue is being put in very misconstrued terms."

As I have argued in my recent blogs, good theology will only get us so far in engaging with these complex technical debates.

Yesterday our resident tech blogger Steve Kryger published an overview of the issues on his own site.

I'm thankful for Steve's insights, but with due respect to my brother's greater technical understanding, I think he (unintentionally?) downplays the moral imperative for Christians to be actively pushing this trial forward.

Firstly we need to understand is that there is a big technical difference between mandatory filtering of unclassified illegal hard-core porn and net-nanny style optional filtering of R18+ (or soft porn) material. In some of the media reportage (and the ACL’s statements), these issues have become completely confused.

As Steve helpfully puts it: "A very rough but hopefully helpful, simple analogy to understand these two types of filters is to compare the post office stopping Playboy magazine being delivered to your home (the government's proposed filter), and your mum stopping Playboy being delivered from the letterbox to your bedroom (the current range of filters). Except, as Clive Hamilton points out, the content that is being filtered is much nastier than Playboy."

Clive's detailed description of the material is confronting to say the least, so in brief we are talking material that, if in print or video, would be deemed 'illegal refuse classification': child porn, sexual violence, bestiality etc.

That the Government’s mandatory filter will be restricted to this kind of illegal material has been confirmed by the responsible minister, Senator Conroy.

"For many years, ACMA [Australian Communications and Media Authority] has had the power to issue a ‘take-down’ notice requiring that prohibited content hosted in Australia be removed from the internet. But the internet has no borders, and Australians have far greater access to material than that hosted in Australia," he says. "What the Government is examining is how technology can assist in filtering internationally-hosted content that is not subject to this take-down notice."

And, this is why the technical debate has proved so confusing.

The technical debate

Much of Steve Kryger's argumentation is based on the assumption that the filter will need to block some 10,000 sites on the so-called ACMA 'black list', thus making the plan technically unworkable.

Anthony Pillion, managing director of Webshield Internet Service, challenged this assumption in a blog for the Australian.

"The loudest complaint is that it will slow down the internet for everyone," he wrote. "The truth is that, if implemented correctly, mandatory filtering will not slow down the internet in any way that would be noticeable to the end user."

And before you throw up claims of ‘vested interest’ at Mr Pillion, amongst ISPs, Pillion is far from alone in supporting the filter plan.

iPrimus CEO Ravi Bhati has said the controversy around the scheme is a "storm in a teacup" and that critics should not pre-judge the capabilities of the content filters until results are available from the trials.

Even iiNet's Michael Malone - the most aggressive industry opponent of the Government trials - admitted in his Australian IT blog that: "Filtering one, two or a hundred sites won't be a problem, but opening the scope of this trial to 'unwanted' material and 10,000 sites or more will have a negative impact."

I contacted Pillion for an explanation of the discrepancy on this most crucial of the tech facts.

And here is the rub.

Senator Conroy is talking about blocking illegal material, not the full ACMA blacklist: "You are talking 700 or 800 urls. That changes the ballpark," Mr Pillion told me. "It is absolutely possible that a small number of urls can be blocked across the Australian landscape."

Indeed he argues this is exactly the same sort of filter system that is already operational in the UK, Canada and Sweden.


So in the light of the technical debate, the ACL is asking the right question: why can't effective filtering be developed in Australia?

"It’s ridiculous to say we have had all these developments with the internet. And no advances can be made with filtering," said Ms Quinlan.

I think this is the sort of question Christians should be firing at their MPs as the debate progresses.

The argument that the internet, in principle, should exist outside the law is one Christians should reject.

Even in the worst-case scenario, the cost to us of filtering will be minimal. But I'm not even convinced that there will be any noticeable cost to us end-users.