Protecting our Children

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Note: Because of public demand for a printable version of this column, here’s a PDF version of this week’s column.

This week, I’m going to give over much of my column space so that other voices can be heard.

Over the last two weeks or so, there’s been an animated and quite fascinating discussion on the VIGNET technical mailing list. VIGNET is a mailing list service provided by the Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) in order to contribute to a public dialogue about all things to do with technology. With over 220 subscribers, it represents a significant number of people working in IT in Vanuatu.

Following the roll-out of Digicel’s GPRS mobile Internet service, concerns have been raised about children and youth in Vanuatu having access to unsuitable content, especially pornography, through their mobile phones.

With nearly 100 messages from dozens of different contributors, the discussion was illuminating, intelligent and remarkably respectful, especially given the delicacy of the topic. What follows is a small but representative sampling….

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Perspectives on Privacy

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

This week, the Australian government moved closer to implementing its controversial Internet Content Filter. The ICF represents the Rudd government’s latest attempt to curtail access to illegal or ‘unwanted’ online materials by requiring that all Australian Internet providers implement this filtering system. News sources report that the government has released the technical specification of its pilot implementation.

I’ve written before about the technical, ethical and legal problems surrounding this plan. I maintain that the system is ineffective and inappropriate, foisting a law enforcement role on the nation’s ISPs, and threatening free speech without providing sufficient protection from the very content it seeks to block.

With Internet deregulation on the horizon in Vanuatu, it seems timely to take a look at some of the basic issues underlying the debate.

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The Price of Freedom

Australia’s Labour government recently announced that they would be implementing a two-tiered, national content-filtering scheme for all Internet traffic.  The proposal as it stands is that people will have a choice of Internet connections: The first will block all Internet content considered unsafe for children. The second will allow adult content, but block anything deemed illegal under Australian law. People can choose one or the other, but they must choose one.

As with all public content-filtering schemes, this idea is well-intentioned, but fatally flawed.

National content filtering is an inefficient and fundamentally faulty technical approach that deputises the nation’s Internet Service Providers to the role of neighbourhood sherriff, something they’re not at all comfortable with. Second, and more importantly, it creates a dangerous legal and moral precedent that is difficult to distinguish from the infamous Great Firewall of China, which is regularly used to stifle social and political dissent.

Indeed, a spokesman for the online rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia recently said, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world.”

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