"Safer Internet Day" has come and gone, and the Government's trial of mandatory filtering has finally been announced, with six small ISPs participating. The trial, with poor results practically inevitable, will do little to dampen discussion about this policy. The stated rationale for the new filtering regime, to protect children, has ensured the debate remains emotive and controversial.
Many of the filter opponents have focused on the many technical flaws in the plan, or its worrying implications for free speech. This has led to the perception that opponents of the plan put internet freedom or technological costs ahead of the welfare of children, as if opponents are all ideologues and childless nerds. Ill-informed filtering proponents have branded organisations like Electronic Frontiers Australia “extreme cyber-libertarians” and implied they oppose filtering because it seeks to impose a restrictive sexual morality on the country. The real question is not "should we do something about child abuse material" or "is protecting children worth the trouble?" but "will filtering actually protect children?" Since we are, in fact, all on the same side when it comes to protecting kids, let’s examine the proposal from a child-welfare perspective.
It's true that children face risks online, although research shows the dangers are usually exaggerated. A small part online the risk children face comes from accidentally viewing inappropriate content. The real risks, as borne out by both research and common sense, stem from interactions with other people. Cyber-bullying, identity theft and inappropriate chat-room contact with adults are much more significant issues, yet they are not addressed at all by a filter. A filter may give the impression kids are being protected, when in fact vigilant supervision and education are as necessary as ever. To make matters worse, once the kids are old enough to deliberately seek out inappropriate material, they will also have the know-how to bypass the filter.
The other stated goal, to prevent the spread of child abuse material, is also a non-starter. The government can add as many sites as it can find to a blacklist - if you can imagine, for a moment, a government bureaucracy keeping up with the proliferation of sites on the net - but the inconvenient fact remains that illegal material is simply not distributed this way. Child abuse material is traded amongst secretive communities of hardened offenders using peer-to-peer and other technologies. Combating such networks requires good police work, not bad technology. Even if the filter goes ahead, the practical reality means that it would only prevent accidental access to the pages on the list. Claims that this will somehow lower demand for such material are totally unsubstantiated.
The dividend for Aussie kids then looks something like this: a filter that interferes with legitimate use, is inaccurate, and does not protect them from the real risks. In the meantime, the government's secret blacklist blocks sites for all Australians, yet will not impact the trade in illicit material by criminal child abusers. In the meantime, practical solutions such as PC-based filters combined with parental supervision are getting short shrift.
Isn't it worth it, though, if just one child can be helped? Well, while the government is focusing its time and our money on the filter, more pressing needs are going unmet. Save the Children's Holly Doel-Mackaway, a full time advocate for child rights, feels that the filtering focus is too narrow and that disproportionate resources are being spent on on a "tiny" part of the problem of violence against children. Doel-Mackaway, herself a child counsellor in the past, says that there are still often waiting lists for children who are victims of sexual abuse to get counselling and that the counselling received is limited: "If we have got a system that is not meeting the needs of children that have experienced sexual violence, then resources need to go into that system." Even in the online arena, the children themselves know better than the government where the issues lie. "A lot of children have written to me saying that a filter is not the solution, but they would like more information on how to deal with cyber-bullying," says Doel-Mackaway.
Anyone who is serious about protecting children can see that an expensive and unworkable filter does nothing for the kids. It distracts from the real issues and the root causes of child abuse which may be harder to solve but are certainly more urgent. In the meantime, children should be educated rather than controlled, and thereby empowered to become safer and more resilient citizens.