Thursday, April 1, 2010

Net Censorship Not An April Fools Joke

Look at the date. It’s April fools day. Perhaps that explains the latest barrage from the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. In an interview with Fairfax Media he has once again mounted a vigorous defence of his plan to censor the internet. It is Senator Conroy’s plan to introduce compulsory filters at the service provider level to block websites on a so called blacklist. The list would be compiled in secret and kept in secret, but it would be supposed to consist of websites known to include child pornography, bestiality, pro-rape content, and extreme violence. Such websites would be categorized as “refused classification” and it would be illegal for them to be accessible in Australia.

While it might be perfectly reasonable to hold genuine concerns about the availability of extreme material on the internet, especially for young users, there are significant problems with the plan. First of all it won’t work. It is an attempt to apply the same censorship system that is used for books, magazines, film and TV to the very different environment of the internet. But those are all published media, where as the internet is not. The point is often made by service providers that they are more like the post office or a phone company and cannot be held responsible for the material which is circulated. In truth, the internet is not exactly like the post office either, but is a kind of hybrid combination of a communications medium and a publishing platform.

While a book or a movie might be classified by the censorship authorities, the process is done openly and everybody knows the book has been censored. It is a process which is open to dispute and appeal. On the other hand, Senator Conroy’s plan calls for the censorship process to be secret, with no recourse for anyone to appeal the decisions. If the government decides that a website should be blocked, that’s all there is to it. Everybody else, including the owner of the website is kept in the dark. The problem is that the government could conceivably decide to ban anything they choose and we would be none the wiser.

The accuracy of filtering has also been called into question, and although Senator Conroy insists that his filters are “100% accurate – no overblocking, no underblocking, and no impact on speeds”, we know that just isn’t true. There has already been a trial run of this form of filtering and it has been well publicized that among the websites blocked were sites for a dentist and a school tuckshop. Sites relating to sexual health information and historical war material also get intercepted. Technical experts have advised that filtering will in fact impact on speeds, regardless of anything Senator Conroy might claim. And on top of that, the experts are clear that filtering will not stop extreme content from appearing on the web, and that anyone who really wants to bypass the filtering can do so quickly and easily.

But perhaps the most sinister aspect of what Senator Conroy is proposing is the secrecy. The framework that will be put into place, if Senator Conroy succeeds, will make it possible for any future government to intercept and censor anything it wants on the internet, including political criticism. And all in secret, without us even knowing we have been censored. That’s the sort of thing you might expect in China or Iran, but not in a free and democratic country like Australia. That may not be the Senator’s intention, but that is the likely outcome of pursuing this path.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Throw Another Shrimp On The Barbie

There is nothing like Australia. That’s the latest tagline developed by Tourism Australia to promote our nation as a tourist destination. We all know it’s true, and we all have our reasons for believing that there is nothing like Australia, and Tourism Australia is relying on that knowledge to help them get the message across to the rest of the world. From the middle of next month we are all invited to upload our photos of our favourite holiday spots with a brief explanation of why we think they are so good, and why there’s “nothing like Australia”. Up for grabs is a prize for a winner from every state, as well as a grand prize of a $25 000 ultimate Australian holiday.

It’s a good idea to get the people of Australia to contribute to the tourism campaign, because that way we are less likely to start criticizing the slogan. Previous efforts have met with mixed success. Some have been the target of tidal waves of criticism, antipathy, and even apathy with some campaigns achieving an unprecedented level of instant forgettability. It’s not so long ago that Baz Luhrmann, the director of the film “Australia”, invited foreigners to “Come Walkabout” with an implied promise that the experience would change their lives. Looking more like they were designed to sell sedatives, those ads might have been more successful if more Americans had actually seen his movie at the time.

Before that was the delightful Lara Bingle, who through no fault of her own is remembered by Australians for asking “where the bloody hell are you?” as well has her more recent escapades. Unfortunately, whether the Japanese and the Americans actually remember it or not, they failed to understand it. It really wasn’t poor Lara’s fault, and in retrospect perhaps it would have been better if she had merely winked at the camera and said something like, “Come on over and we’ll show you a good time…” At least, the damned Americans would have understood that it was actually an invitation, not a complaint.

Does anybody remember the “Naturally Free Spirited” campaign? No, neither do I, but apparently that ran for almost ten years. The one campaign which everybody remembers, not only here but right around the world, is the one that ended more than twenty years ago. When Paul Hogan advised American viewers to “throw another shrimp on the barbie”, tourist visitor numbers doubled. It remains our most successful tourism promotion ever, and it still works for us today because even though the ads are long gone, people still remember Paul Hogan. Maybe that’s what he was talking about when he claimed that the tax office should be paying him, rather than pursuing him for alleged evasion of taxes.

It’s true that there is “nothing like Australia”, but it remains a challenge getting that message across to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Not Everyone Who Drinks Is A Threat To Society

The New South Wales Police Association, along with the Australian Medical Association, the New South Wales Nurses Association and the Health Services Union have renewed their call for a dramatic change to alcohol trading regulations to combat alcohol related violence. Under the plan, closing time will be no later than 3am, with a universal lock out from 1 am. Strong alcoholic drinks like cocktails and shots would be banned after 10 pm, and all alcohol sales would be stopped 30 minutes before closing time. Sales to individual customers would be restricted to no more than four drinks at a time, meaning that if there are eight people in your group of friends, two of you will have to go to the bar.

The plan has been put forward after a trial of these restrictions in Newcastle which has been widely seen as very successful in terms of cutting down on violent incidents and injuries. The police association says that the two hour reduction in trading hours has resulted in a 30% reduction in assaults and other incidents. Many of these restrictions have also been applied to venues around Sydney that have been deemed to have a problem with violence, but the so-called “frontline coalition” of police, doctors, nurses, and ambulance officers want the restrictions applied right across the state.

There’s no denying that closing the doors will prevent people from drinking too much and becoming violent. If the pub is closed, obviously nobody is getting drunk or causing trouble. But it is also preventing everyone else from having a night out for a few drinks too. The difficulty is that imposing restrictions across the board penalizes everybody, not just the minority who become aggressive or anti social when they drink. People are supposed to be free to go out and enjoy themselves without bureaucratic bullies telling them that they can’t have a martini after 10pm.

Already we have seen occasions where well intentioned authorities are clamping down not only on genuinely dangerous behavior, but also on exuberance, good natured skylarking, and anyone who gets a bit rowdy. Just having a few drinks doesn’t automatically make someone a problem, but it seems that some of the authorities are starting to look at things that way. But just because there are a few idiots who have the wrong attitude shouldn’t mean that everyone who enjoys a drink should be treated as a threat to society.

As I have said many times before, it’s the attitude not the alcohol. If everybody had the appropriate attitude, it wouldn’t matter what time the doors were closed.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Road Rules Should Be Designed To Help Us Out, Not Catch Us Out.

The New South Wales government has announced that it will reintroduce mobile speed cameras as part of a larger road safety plan which also includes higher speeding fines, along with a road safety audit and funding for road upgrades. While the audit and upgrades will be welcome, the increased fines and the speed cameras will no doubt attract the usual accusations of policy being driven more by revenue raising than by any genuine concern for road safety. It’s easy to understand why people feel that way, especially when it seems that the system is designed to trap people.

Of course, the simple solution to avoid falling foul of a mobile speed camera is don’t speed. It doesn’t matter where the camera is located, how visible it may or may not be, or how many of them might be out there lurking in wait for the unsuspecting motorist: if you don’t exceed the speed limit you cannot be booked. That much could not be any more simple. What is not so simple anymore is actually keeping track of just what the speed limit is at any given time in any given location.

Once upon a time, we all knew that we had to stay under 60 kilometres per hour in a built up area, and 100 kmh out of town. Obeying the law was easy. Now, the speed limit might be 110, 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, or 40, or even more confusingly, any combination of those over a relatively short distance. Instead of keeping our eyes on the road where they should be we now have to keep looking out for signs every few metres for fear of missing one and finding ourselves on the wrong side of the law.

Even worse are the variable speed limit zones, and worse again are the temporary speed restrictions for road works. Nobody in their right mind would object to slowing down for road works, but unfortunately it seems to be increasingly common for temporary signs to be left in operation while there is no actual work being done, and no obstruction to the road. All the equipment might be parked off the side of the road, sitting there inactive, but the law still requires us slow down anyway. And then there are the frustrating occasions when somebody has forgotten the 100 sign at the end of the roadworks and it appears we are supposed to continue driving at 40 kmh from there to the next town.

Most of us are happy to stick to the rules, but the rules are becoming increasingly complex and confusing, making it appear that the system is designed to catch us out rather than to help us out.