Tuesday, January 15, 2008

US politics: the Obamaniacs vs the Clintonistas

For the last few weeks I've been scouting about the blogosphere, reading opinions and comments about the US Presidential Primaries, particularly as regards the two Democratic front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The last day or two things seem to have gotten really ugly between their online supporters. There was much less disagreement over principle and much more name-calling, mud-slinging and disgust at the alleged negative traits of all the followers of the opposing candidate.

I'm trying not to get sucked in, but I have two observations to make based on the existence of this acrimony, and on the candidates involved:
1. it seems Hillary Clinton is living up to her reputation as a polarising and divisive figure.
2. It seems Barack Obama is not living up to his reputation as a unifying and transcendant one.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Child Wise CEO distances herself from government filtering scheme

Child Wise CEO calls for government re-think on ISP filtering.

Good for her. And it's pleasing also that Ms Mcmenamin seems willing to engage online critics. I wish I had more time to write out my own response to her right now.

I've been meaning to write out some thoughts on Barack Obama's candidacy as well, particularly in the light of some harsh criticisms from John Cole at Balloon Juice. I was hoping to write a lot here over the uni break, but I never seem to make the time. Oh well. Maybe I'll try harder in future

Thursday, January 10, 2008

US politics: the Deomcratic candidates and the Press

I think I've come up with a way to figure out how to predict the outcome of the Democratic Primaries: examine what the American press says, and whatever the opposite of what they're saying is, that's what'll happen.

Obaman winning Iowa was a "surprise win". Clinton winning New Hampshire was a "shock comeback". Now the story appears to be that the race will be a tightly-fought contest between the two of them. If the pattern holds, then the Democratic candidate for the Presidency is going to be John Edwards. The media just doesn't seem to think his campaign is worth covering. On that basis, it's probably the one most worth watching.

This isn't just some contrarian tendency on my part. I think there's a significant perception amongst some American voters that the American press is trying to actively determine who should be the next President rather than simply report on the race. At least that's the impression I get from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers who stated:
I think Obama won Iowa because voters resented Hillary's coronation.

I think Hillary won New Hampshire because voters resented Obama's coronation.

Are Americans actively trying to go against the media narratives that are being pushed upon them?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Child Wise statistics - why these ones?

From Child Wise's media releases page, dated 14 August 2006 we have the article "Australians say no to child porn". It cites the same Newspoll study that Bernadine cited in her recent op-ed in The Australian regarding the attitudes of internet users over 18. Newspoll is generally reliable, so I see no particular reason to doubt the statistics presented.

I am curious about two statements from that press release, though. Child Wise is devoted to prevention of child sexual exploitation, so I wonder why the findings "78% believe that ISPs should offer customers the choice of blocking all pornography" and "64% are not confident that home based internet filters are effective" are quoted as if they're somehow relevant to that task. Home-based filters are of course entirely voluntary, and designed to prevent minors from accessing adult content. They are NOT designed for preventing universal access to illegal content such as child porn. So why even mention them?

The curious inclusion of a statistic about what people think about ISPs offering to block (presumably legal) pornography has no relevance to Child Wise's mission either that I can see. There might be a tortured argument in there about how preventing children from accessing adult sexual material might prevent "mental sexual abuse" from the imagery or somesuch, but I don't think that's the reasoning that Child Wise employs. The relevance to Child Wise's mission of the distinction between child pornography and legal pornography seems completely unconsidered here.

The press release here pre-dates Stephen Conroy's "if you don't support our filter plan then you love paedophiles" smear by over a year, so I don't think the conflation is part of any intentional political smear campaign. I suspect that the conflation is unintentional. But I think that only makes it more problematic. It shows a genuine inability to distinguish between filtering illegal content and filtering adult content only. I think that a lot of Australians share this blind spot. And I fear that that's going to make things very hard for people arguing against this censorship proposal.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stephen Conroy's hawking his filter to News Ltd now

But first, an op-ed on Stephen Conroy from 2004. He was Deputy Senate Opposition leader at the time. It's not a flattering article.

In contemporary news, from today's Australian we have this: Conroy wades into child porn net flood. Now there's an alarmist headline.

Some interesting quotes in it, such as "Senator Conroy will seek to halt access to child pornography, X-rated and violent material for all home users through mandatory filtering by ISPs so children can be protected from net nasties."

Curious, but unsurprising, that The Australian has lumped child pornography, regular pornography and violence all into one. I expect the confusion between "adult content" and actual illegal content is stemming from Senator Conroy's office. I hope less net-ignorant old media outlets can do better than this confused mess, but I'm not optimistic.

The article also explicitly states that "Senator Conroy has been prodded into action by Family First senator Steve Fielding, and the Australian Family Association, which scorned the former government's $85 million free filters for families package as wholly inadequate." No idea if that's true or just editorialising upon the writer's part. It jibes with what people have been speculating to date though, given the make-up of the Senate come July.

Anything else? The Childwise organisation mentioned in the article as a source of statistics has nothing on its homepage that suggests they're actually on board with this government proposal: they want to stop child sexual exploitation, not just hide the evidence of it from the eyes of other children. Might be worth looking into them further, see if they've been misquoted.

Edit: Oh dear. I guess Bernadette McMenamin of Childwise wasn't misquoted in the slightest. Interesting that she's describing the filter as a blanket means of "blocking child pornography and other illegal content" rather than the "child-safe feed with adult opt-out option" that's the supposed proposal on the table, though. Who's been told fibs? Ms McMenamin? Or the Australian public?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Internet censorship: some numbers, some publications, some thoughts

A paper from the Australian Institute (homepage here) published in 2003 outlines a proposal for a mandatory filtering system which looks broadly similar to the one Labor wants to go ahead with, although their proposals went further. I don't know if this is the basis of Labor's policy, but there are some interesting (and from an anti-censorship viewpoint, worrying) statistics on support for censorship among parents of teenagers on pages 22-24 of the paper:

Newspoll was commissioned to survey the attitudes of parents with children aged 12 to 17 (inclusive). The survey was conducted over the weekends of 13-16 and 20-23 February 2003 and the sample size was 377 randomly selected households with at least one child in the specified age group. The margin of error is five per cent or less.


Seventy eight per cent of these households report having access to the Internet at home, a much higher proportion than the average, which is closer to one third.

On the question of censorship, when these parents were asked "Would you support a system which automatically filtered out Internet pornography going into homes unless adult users asked otherwise?" the result was the following:

Ninety-three percent of parents of teenagers support this proposal while only five per cent oppose it, with three per cent unsure. One might expect that younger parents would be less in favour of these strategies given more sexually liberal views among younger adults. Instead, our survey finds that younger parents, those in the 25-34 age bracket, are 100 per cent in favour (compared to 92 per cent of those aged 35-49 and 93 per cent of those aged 50 and over).

Of course, not all Australian citizens are parents, and not all parents are parents of 12-17 year olds (inclusive), but that's still a pretty hefty voting bloc there with an incredibly unified viewpoint, a statistic which I don't think it's possible to disregard just because of the relatively small sample size.

My initial belief that people support mandatory censorship due to unfamiliarity with the Internet may not hold water given the high uptake of Internet use among this censorous segment of the population. It might be the case that the Internet connection at these households is usually purchased for the benefit of the teenagers rather than the adults, who don't use it. I could see how a combination of parental unfamiliarity with something that's right in their homes, where their children are in reach, could contribute to alarmism.

But that would only be a theory. It could just as easily be the case that these parents have plumbed the depths of what's out there, and don't want to think about even the minutest possibility that their children might come across something untoward. It would also explain the even higher rate of support for mandatory filtering among parents aged 25-34, who I would expect to have some Internet experience as a teenager/young adult under their belt, as well. (Parents as young as 25 with children as old as 17? Or even 12? Something about those statistics at the low end of the parental age bracket is skewed).

As to Labor's policy itself, it probably would've been a good idea to pay more attention to it prior to the election. Their pre-election proposal, "Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety", is still available for download here.

Apropos of nothing in particular, the insistence on prefixing anything net-related with "cyber-" sets my teeth on edge: "cyber-safety", teaching children to be "responsible cyber-citizens", "cyber-bullying", "cyber-stalking" - it might make sense within the whole "net as cyberspace/virtual reality" paradigm of the 80's and 90's, but I don't think it's accurate or productive to continue treating online material as somehow separate from mundane reality. Today's Internet is a part of everyday reality, not separate from it, and cybertalking in cyberlanguage about cyberactions that supposedly only have cybereffects in cyberspace just doesn't help address the new media issues of today in a realistic manner.

Anyway, here's a curious sentence from Labor's fact sheet on page 5: "Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material". [emphasis added]

Prominent Australian political blogs like The Bartlett Diaries and the Road to Surfdom have picked up on Senator Conroy's "civil libertarians = kiddyfiddlers" comment, and consider it a baseless political smear. If it is just a cynical smear that Conroy doesn't himself believe, I wonder why his pre-election fact sheet includes this conflation of X-rated material with child pornography, and seems to assume that the issue of child porn online has been adequately dealt with when children have been restricted from accessing it? Perhaps the Senator really is so confused about the issue that he can't tell the difference between the two different Internet boogiemen of children accessing pornography, and anyone accessing and/or distributing child pornography?

I think I'm going to buck the conventional wisdom that the Senator is cynical, and favour the assumption that he's stupid: he genuinely believes that "restricting children's access to online child pornography and X-rated material" is a coherent policy goal. Perhaps he assumes, as too many ignorant people do, that vast tracts of illegal and disgusting material are strewn all across the Internet within easy reach of anyone, and all that can be done about it is to reign in those young people who have not yet succumbed to its alleged allure.

The question I guess, then, is "is the rest of the Australian public also that stupid?". If this was a sane discussion, I'd have faith in Australians to come to the right conclusion, but I fear on the issue of the Internet, fearmongering and alarmism could beat out sanity very easily. In fact judging by the statistics of what Australian parents of teenagers want that I listed above, they've already done so.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Internet censorship rant

"If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."

So sayeth our new Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy when defending Labor's intention to force ISPs in Australia to filter internet content.

It should be mentioned here that the planned internet filtering is being presented as a means of protecting children from material that is inappropriate for them, with an "unfiltered" option available to adults who want to opt out. In other words, it has NOTHING to do with tackling child pornography - unless of course the Senator is suggesting that anyone who wants an unfiltered feed wants it so they can access child porn. What is Senator Conroy talking about?

(1) The most cynical interpretation is that the good Senator knows damn well that the proposal has nothing to do with child porn and is knowingly trying to confuse the two in the public's mind. If so, it seems to have succeeded in the case of Daily Telegraph writer Galen English. Her column merrily bobbles along saying things like "Besides, what evidence is there that young children using the web are regularly stumbling across child pornography? Sites used by paedophiles are well hidden and frequently relocated to avoid detection", acting for all the world as if child porn is not already illegal to access and possess for both children and adults.

I believe one implication of Senator Conroy deliberately trying to confuse the public by engaging in a smear that he knows to be baseless is this: he has no intention of responding to any protests on this issue, his only intention is to discredit the protesters. Appeals to the government directly will not work. Appeals must be made to the public at large. The effectiveness of that approach will I think depend on how knowledgeable the public is about the Internet these days. I fear that they aren't knowledgeable enough.

(2) Alternatively, Senator Conroy himself might not be knowledgeable enough, and might just be stupid and incredibly ill-informed about his own portfolio. Some research from uni I came across last year suggested that far too many people view the Internet in a way that isn't entirely rational. Rather than a tool or a mere network of computers exchanging data, many people see it as a kind of gateway to the unconscious, a dangerous other place where dark and secret desires that have been stifled by the conscious mind are free to roam. While adults can usually navigate the pathways without too much trouble, children are seen as vulnerable due to their immature judgement, and when porn or violence suddenly leaps out at them they'll end up psychically damaged and end up, say, thinking that suicide and self-harm are wonderful things.

In such a view, much of the content of the Internet seems to exist outside of rational, conscious legal control: all you can do is try to block it out. The confusion between "adult content" and actual illegal content like child pornography would indeed seem blurry if you don't understand that both moral and legal norms do already exist with regard to what is available on the Internet, both in Australia and around the world. They only need to be applied in a sensible way. If Senator Conroy is stupid rather than malicious, it's a failure of both government policy that they're concentrating on blanket censorship rather than working with the Internet community to try and address the existence of morally and legally problematic content. It lacks imagination, ignores the advice of people with actual knowledge of the issue, and shows a terrifying deficiency of technological understanding from a government that's promised us a technologically spurred "education revolution".

My uni degree is supposedly teaching me to, among other things, be a more intelligent activist. I don't know how well it's succeeding. But from my less than perfectly worded speculations above, as well as a few other thoughts, I can think of a few suggestions that I would make to anti-censorship activists were I in a position to make some:
First, don't assume that the government is going to listen to your concerns in good faith. Assume that they are out to get you. They may not be, they may be nice, but don't count on it.
Second, reach out to the general public as much as you can. This especially includes off-line activity targeted at people who don't use the Internet. Assume that such people don't understand the Internet. Suggest that the supposed danger of it, particularly to children, has been vastly exaggerated. Seek to explain why. But whatever you do, don't patronise them.
Third, don't take being called child pornography supporters lying down. I would note that some civil libertarians have expressed concerns that anyone who wants to opt out of the ISP censorship regime might get stigmatised in the future. I point out that this is happening right now, and it's coming from the man charged with creating the censorship regime: Stephen Conroy in his comment above has as good as said that anyone who wants uncensored net access wants the freedom to access child porn. Call him on it, if possible. I wish I knew the right question to ask, but "I want to opt out of the ISP regime. Why do you think that means I want access to child pornography?" sets the tone about right I think. It needs to be snappier, though.
Fourth, the Rudd government may be vulnerable to an oblique attack: the promised education revolution, particularly when talking about its promises of making Australia more proficient in IT training, could conceivably become a vector for concerns about internet censorship. This could conceivably overcome attempts by the Rudd government to ignore democratic objection to Conroy's proposal if it's seen as a betrayal of one of Rudd's core election promises, and not just as a side issue. Keywords so far describing the problems with the censorship proposal have been "oppressive" and "expensive". I would like to add another: stupid.

After all, this proposal is stupid. It's been hatched together by people too stupid to understand the Internet, it's attempting to address issues related to the Internet in a stupid way, its defense relies on convincing people that it's alright to be stupid and let the government take care of all their thinking for them, and it's going to destroy the promise of the education revolution that it would make our economy more knowledge-based: nothing discourages intelligence and encourages stupidity like censorship does.