August 6, 2010

When jounalists inject misinformation

In iTWire’s ‘The inter­net fil­ter is dead! Long live the fil­ter!’ James Riley writes:

Despite the nar­row focus of the gov­ern­men­t’s pro­posed fil­ter, despite its tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­i­ty and despite a series of trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty mea­sures that were to be put in place, the fil­ter sim­ply unnerved peo­ple. And a great many sim­ply said the fil­ter would not work.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion ahoy. The focus of the fil­ter has and will always be vague, mean­ing­less trite in the style of ‘save the chil­dren’, with a creep­ing scope and absolute­ly no account­abil­i­ty. Wit­ness how the leaked URL list blew out to include cur­rent­ly legal porno­graph­ic mate­r­i­al, infor­ma­tion about euthana­sia and a Wik­ileaks page. Google et al have spent the last two years com­plain­ing that the scope is ill-defined, sub­jec­tive and hard to enforce.

On the mer­it of its tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­i­ty, where are the con­crete sta­tis­tics on the effect of trans­fer speed, reli­a­bil­i­ty and false pos­i­tives? Where is the inde­pen­dent study? Why was the Gov­ern­men­t’s report so delayed? Again, iiNet and oth­er ISPs whose exis­tence does­n’t depend on con­tin­ued gov­ern­ment con­tracts force­ful­ly opposed the tech­ni­cal imple­men­ta­tion for a wide swathe of reasons.

Beyond the tech­ni­cal imple­men­ta­tion prob­lems there’s also the fact that the fil­ter is incred­i­bly sim­plis­tic and inef­fec­tive; any­thing based on URL lists is prone to bypass via proxy, tun­nelling and encryp­tion (to name just a few tech­niques). Two min­utes after this thing goes live a thou­sand Yahoo Answers pages will list ways to bypass it. And who’s like­ly to have the tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to do so already? The very peo­ple you’re ‘pro­tect­ing’ or ‘stop­ping’: the tech­ni­cal­ly-mind­ed new gen­er­a­tion and any­one else who’s ever stepped off the main­stream web. No, seri­ous com­mer­cial pae­dophiles would not be stu­pid enough to use unen­crypt­ed web traf­fic, and the fil­ter won’t block their content.

I’d love to see the size of the URL list should the gov­ern­ment start block­ing pages that describe how to work around the filter.

And no James, there is no ‘tech­ni­cal trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty’. The gen­er­al pub­lic don’t know how the sys­tem works, can’t review it from a tech­ni­cal or source-code lev­el, and have no con­trol over the blocked address­es even as a mat­ter of peri­od­i­cal pub­lic or inde­pen­dent review. A telling part of the quote above is “[…] a series of trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty mea­sures that were to be put in place” (empha­sis mine). Note the “were”. They had­n’t been dis­cussed pub­licly, or reviewed, or imple­ment­ed, or stress-tested.

The inter­net fil­ter is about get­ting a black-box into every ISP to estab­lish a base­line sys­tem for block­ing arbi­trary con­tent at the Gov­ern­men­t’s whim. Noth­ing more. It will not pro­tect you, your kids or your dog. If you think it will then you are an idiot.

But the Howard Gov­ern­ment end-user fil­ter­ing pol­i­cy was a dis­as­ter (if you define dis­as­ter as a pol­i­cy that costs mil­lions but is near­ly com­plete­ly ineffective.

Labor’s inter­net fil­ter has cost mil­lions already (just for test­ing!) and will be com­plete­ly ineffective.

Under for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Helen Coo­nan, gov­ern­ment spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on its end-user fil­ter pol­i­cy – includ­ing $15 mil­lion on an advertising/awareness cam­paign to make sure par­ents knew the fil­ters were available.

One Gov­ern­men­t’s bad­ly-man­aged project does not pre­clude a lat­er Gov­ern­ment from attempt­ing to do a bet­ter job. Also, how the hell do you spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on fil­ter­ing soft­ware devel­op­ment? You know, it’s not that hard, derr. I could give you the name of quite a few free projects the Gov­ern­ment could adapt to fit with the help of two C++ pro­gram­mers and a few weeks. Unless said project decides to invest a few mil­lion in gold-plat­ed chairs or a new build­ing full of point­less super­vi­so­ry staff.

At its peak, about 30,000 peo­ple had tak­en up the gov­ern­men­t’s offer of free fil­ter soft­ware. 30,000! From an Aus­tralian sub­scriber base of 12 mil­lion or more!

Believe it or not James, not every­one with an Inter­net con­nec­tion has kids, has kids of a the appro­pri­ate age, requires new fil­ter­ing soft­ware (oth­er soft­ware exists, includ­ing stuff ISPs offer already), or shares your obvi­ous polit­i­cal posi­tion on carte-blanch filtering.

Fur­ther, despite the noisy oppo­si­tion to the ISP-lev­el fil­ter­ing pro­pos­al, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the tech­nol­o­gy sec­tor, Mum’s and Dad’s were gen­er­al­ly in favour in Gov­ern­ment fil­ter­ing the kind of con­tent that the RC cat­e­go­ry is applied to.

Wrong, and a total­ly slant­ed sta­tis­tic. Again, we’re not all par­ents, and we don’t all have kids, and we don’t all want the same arbi­trary restric­tions as those who are par­ents. You’re miss­ing a fun­da­men­tal point here: why are you apply­ing a “solu­tion” meant for a select tar­get audi­ence to all of us? Your use of the col­lo­qui­al ‘Moms and Dads’ instead of nam­ing a spe­cif­ic demo­graph­ic also reeks of loaded lan­guage.

The fact that the oppo­nents of manda­to­ry fil­ter­ing qui­et­ly accept­ed the vol­un­teer ISP fil­ter­ing by the nation’s three largest ISPs – which will block child abuse sites – is just strange.

Wrong. We expressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion and frus­tra­tion that those ISPs caved in with­out con­sid­er­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions. We do not accept their deci­sion. Where are you get­ting this idea from? And again, you’ve tied that sen­tence in with a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of the truth: ‘block child abuse sites’. This para­graph’s utter absur­di­ty is exposed when you write it hon­est­ly: … qui­et­ly accept­ed the vol­un­teer ISP fil­ter­ing by the nation’s three largest ISPs – which will block arbi­trary con­tent at the Gov­ern­men­t’s sole dis­cre­tion – is just strange. Does­n’t quite have the same effect as the slant­ed rhetoric of the oth­er ver­sion though.

All the die-hard anti-cen­sor­ship pro­test­ers and free speech lib­er­tar­i­ans were in effect say­ing that Gov­ern­ment fil­ter­ing (or cen­sor­ship in their lan­guage) indeed had its place in our soci­ety and that only dif­fer­ence they had with Gov­ern­ment was over pre­cise­ly where the line was drawn.

This is called a straw­man argu­ment. You may have heard of it. Don’t do it; it’s essen­tial­ly a manip­u­la­tive way to seed fear, uncer­tain­ty and doubt. If that’s your goal then you should­n’t been in journalism.

With­out the Lib­er­als sup­port, with­out the Coali­tion, Gov­ern­ment will not be able to get its manda­to­ry plan through the Sen­ate if it is re-elected.

What? I don’t know how to inter­pret this sen­tence; is it just a state­ment, a request to put pres­sure on the Lib­er­al par­ty, or polit­i­cal cam­paign­ing for Labor? I’m very confused.

Regard­less, even with the ad hoc vol­un­tary scheme, the account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy mea­sures that gov­ern the black­list will need to be passed.

Wrong. Which sites a par­ent choos­es to block in a PC-lev­el fil­ter­ing pro­gram becomes a deci­sion for that par­ent alone. I don’t see the Gov­ern­ment pass­ing a black­list bill for my AdBlock sub­scrip­tion, so why this? Rec­om­men­da­tions are as far as this should go.

This debate has legs in it yet. Cer­tain­ly the inter­net fil­ter issue gen­er­at­ed more heart than any tech­nol­o­gy-relat­ed pub­lic pol­i­cy debate of the past 30 years.

Yet hard­ly any­one out­side the ISP and tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties know how it works or the future reper­cus­sions of installing black-boxed fil­ter­ing machines. The main­stream media has­n’t dis­sect­ed the sys­tem for lay­men, and arti­cles such as yours con­tin­ue to pave over all the inter­est­ing tech­ni­cal and polit­i­cal detail and tote the ben­e­fits while ignor­ing the problems.

And so much mis­in­for­ma­tion was prop­a­gat­ed about how the fil­ter would work, and what kinds of con­tent that it would cap­ture that what passed for debate often descend­ed into per­son­al abuse and name calling.

And much of the vit­ri­ol was heaped on Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Min­is­ter Stephen Con­roy, who became a kind of light­ning rod for crit­i­cism on any­thing fil­ter related. 

Sure­ly you’re famil­iar with how dis­hon­esty from the Gov­ern­ment leads to dis­trust amongst the peo­ple. We dis­trust Con­roy and asso­ciates because time and time again they’re used inac­cu­rate lan­guage, mis­in­for­ma­tion and dem­a­goguery when describ­ing the fil­ter. Con­roy should­n’t have his post because he isn’t tech­ni­cal­ly com­pe­tent. The posi­tion, espe­cial­ly in this debate, requires explic­it tech­ni­cal knowl­edge which he does­n’t possess.

Per­haps we should put Fred Nile into the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Min­is­ter posi­tion. I’m sure Mr Nile’s per­son­al views would­n’t affect the deci­sions he makes as part of his respon­si­bil­i­ty to reflect pub­lic opin­ion in a senior polit­i­cal posi­tion with the pow­er to lim­it the trans­fer of infor­ma­tion. Behold the sec­ond rea­son we dis­trust Mr Con­roy: deci­sions with seri­ous, long-reach­ing con­se­quences require a com­plete­ly objec­tive view­point, and that has­n’t been demonstrated.

The Coali­tion has enjoyed watch­ing Sen­a­tor Con­roy twist in the breeze over this pol­i­cy for well over a year. Final­ly they have announced which way they’ll jump on this issue.

That the Coali­tion has ten­ta­tive­ly grown a sin­gle ver­te­brae of a spine should­n’t dis­tract from the fact that their oth­er­wise jel­ly-like corpse has been silent­ly flap­ping in said breeze for two years. Their politi­cians wait­ed until polling group returns showed they could use the issue to boost per­cent­ages, not that they tru­ly believe what’s said in their media release. Pol­i­tics in this coun­try (at least for the two intractable par­ties) has devolved into vague promis­es of unique per­spec­tives and solu­tions while effec­tive­ly para­phras­ing the oppos­ing par­ty’s poli­cies and work­ing only to main­tain a sad and sor­ry status-quo.


Arti­cles about poten­tial­ly cru­cial top­ics such as Inter­net fil­ter­ing require sta­tis­tics, frank lan­guage and the abil­i­ty to under­stand a deep, tech­ni­cal sub­jec­t’s con­se­quences in both the tech­ni­cal and soci­etal areas. If you have the van­tage of a jour­nal­is­tic soap­box and only have a fleet­ing grasp on the top­ic — or even worse a polit­i­cal­ly-biased view­point — you run the risk of turn­ing a com­plex argu­ment into a bunch of talk­ing points and sub­jec­tive gum flapping.

Come on guys, jour­nal­is­m’s core is objec­tiv­i­ty. Watered-down report­ing and opin­ion-seek­ing has drained the media of its abil­i­ty to present tan­gi­ble facts that actu­al­ly prompt read­ers to con­sid­er their posi­tion on an issue. Weav­ing in your opin­ion between facts com­pli­cates your read­ers’ abil­i­ty to analyse and make deci­sions since they first have to extract truth from fic­tion — and that’s sup­posed to be your job!

posted by Andrew

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