Clive Hamilton’s flimsy defence in The Australian last week of Stephen Conroy’s ill-conceived internet filtering scheme, is a nastily flawed polemic that I can’t let pass without comment.

First, he spends the first five paragraphs, a quarter of his article, on a bizarrely detailed fictional tale of a young boy finding pornography on the internet – a hypothetical situation the filter wouldn’t prevent unless it was to block all legal, X-rated porn from adults, which Conroy claims is not the plan – and concludes that the question this raises is:

Do we believe easy access to these sorts of images causes harm to some or all of the boys and girls who view them? If so, how should we respond to it?

Well, you’d think that parental supervision and PC-based filtering, applied by parents to computers to which their children have access, would be a far more effective way of stopping children seeing porn than just hoping you can somehow distinguish between children and adults’ internet access from the level of government, but that’s not the point Hamilton’s trying to make. The prurient first five paragraphs are simply to disturb parents and panic them into supporting whatever hare-brained scheme the government comes up with to “solve” this terrible problem, whatever the cost to their own liberties. (Or real efforts to catch those who would harm their children.)

But first he must smear the scheme’s opponents, so that their quite detailed technical objections to what Conroy’s been able to come up with so far are seen in the most disturbing light.

Some participants in the internet filtering debate do not believe that access to porn on the internet is a problem. One referred to the sorts of images I have described as “naughty pictures”. Others take an extreme libertarian view that people (including children) should be able to view whatever they like.

I don’t know who these “others” are – Clive can’t cite any. (Although, if he is going to use this as a stick with which to bash “extreme libertarians”, you’d think he could at least go through the motions and provide some evidence that pornographic images do actually “cause harm to some or all of the boys and girls” who view them. There is some, right?)

In any case, this is – of course – a shameless misrepresentation of what the filter’s main opponents (EFA and GetUp and the ISPs in particular) have actually been arguing – which is that adults shouldn’t have their access to legal content blocked because unsupervised children might get access to it. Clive disingenuously attacks EFA’s concerns with a weak analogy:

Presumably, EFA would support the repeal of censorship laws that regulate the content of television, films and magazines, so that the types of images I described above — and there are some sick ones I have not mentioned — could be readily seen on cinema screens and television sets or bought at the local newsagent.

Nice try, Clive, but the analogy doesn’t work. The problem is that the only type of mandatory government internet filtering that would prevent children from accessing porn would be the equivalent not of our existing rating system, but of the government simply blocking from sale or broadcast any TV, films or magazines above a “PG” rating, and requiring adults to apply for permission every time they were to wish to view something unsuitable for a child. That’s what’s actually being proposed for the internet.

If you think about it, anything short of that would have no effect on Clive’s initial hypothetical whatsoever – either adults can access adult content, or they can’t. If they can, then kids, using adults’ computers – which they do – will be able to access it also, as in the disturbing little tale Clive spent so much time imagining. The only way to enable adults to view legal material whilst stopping kids is for parents to SUPERVISE their children and install PC-based monitoring software. (Which the government already provides for free.) If they can’t, then the government might as well ban all films in Australia rated higher than PG. After all, you never know when a kid’s going to go through his parents’ DVD collection and watch Terminator or something, even though the OFLC thinks he’s too young for it. How can you absolutely ensure this doesn’t happen except by preventing adults from ever owning such a non-PG film; by blocking them all at the border? That’s the equivalent.

And, whilst the EFA and GetUp want adults to be able to access adult material, they’ve also been very clear that they don’t want kids accessing it – which is why they support the only measures that will actually help. The smear that they’re indifferent to kids watching porn is beneath contempt.
Hoping he’s persuaded his audience to treat these dodgy children-accessing-porn promoters with suspicion, next Clive attempts to persuade them to disregard all the technical problems these disturbing people have raised:

Although there are plenty of reasonable people who believe on balance that filtering is a mistake, the extreme libertarians and ISP executives who dominate the debate often indulge in absurd exaggerations.

Get Up told its members that testing has begun on “systems that will slow our internet by up to 87 per cent, make it more expensive, miss the vast majority of inappropriate content and accidentally block up to 1 in 12 legitimate sites”.

These figures are picked out from the worst-performing filter from earlier pilot tests. Scare-mongering does not get more blatant than this. Why would the Government mandate the worst filter when the best slowed performance by only 2 per cent? If mandatory filtering slowed the internet by 87 per cent I would be out there protesting against it too.

The one that only slowed performance by 2 per cent was one of the least accurate. On those tests, the Government would have the following choice: block significant amounts of legal material but do it quickly, or do it more thoroughly and block less legal material, but significantly degrade performance.

Funnily enough, whilst reassuring us that there’s a quicker filter, Clive declines to point out that it barely works.

But technical arguments are not the point of his article – Hamilton knows he’s on a losing wicket with them.

Instead, this article is a flimsy attempt to reframe the debate – not between people who honestly disagree on what the best means is for protecting children from accessing pornography, but between people who DO NOT CARE ABOUT CHILDREN and those who are appalled at the idea of a boy sitting down at a computer and reading the first five paragraphs of Clive Hamilton’s article. (To be honest, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing for an adult to be exposed to the rest of it.) He knows this isn’t the case – he could hardly be following the debate and believe that the filter’s main opponents are advocating for children to have access to porn; at the very least you’d think he’d have noticed when he was completely unable to quote them saying anything of the sort – but, because it suits his polemical purposes, he’s happy to smear them anyway. He wants parents to view anyone critical of the filter as somehow in favour of their little Timmy being exposed to all those nasty things he spends so much time describing. Despite knowing that it isn’t true. “Scare-mongering does not get more blatant than this?” No, it doesn’t.

Clive includes a little sop for friendly critics of the ALP – “Although there are plenty of reasonable people who believe on balance that filtering is a mistake” – but it’s clearly an insincere throwaway in the context of the rest of the article.

So whilst Clive’s disingenuous rant has already been comprehensively savaged elsewhere, it deserves a response here as a prime example of the sort of poisonous, dishonest rhetoric that has no place in serious public discussion. It’s an attempt to drag discussion of an actual government proposal down a little side-alley where strawman uber-libertarians can be beaten up by Moral Majority types who will then pretend that a victory there has some bearing on the very real and pressing issue of what precisely Conroy is planning to do to the internet.

What little Hamilton’s piece has to do with that discussion is either wrong or misleading.

It deserves to be mocked for the contempt with which it treats not only Hamilton’s targets, but his readers – and then ignored.

UPDATE: Apparently the government no longer provides the net filtering software for free (hence the strikethrough above) – presumably because it’s redirected its “saving children from viewing porn” efforts to the government’s daft ISP-level filter idea instead. A second way in which, by taking money and energy away from programs that actually do protect children, Conroy’s scheme actually makes them less safe.

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