Opinion: Australia Is Becoming A Terrible Place To Be On The Internet, And It's The Government's Fault

Opinion: It's easy to throw stones at the government when things go wrong in our lives. Petrol is too expensive, taxes are too high, the rich are just getting richer and the sea levels keep rising, et cetera. But something is happening in Australia now where the blame can sit squarely on the shoulders of those in charge: Australia's internet is at the mercy of idiots, and it's about to become a terrible place to be.

Andrew Sheargold / Stringer

Over the last 12 months, it feels like the idea of a free and open internet for Australian users has been placed in front of a legislative firing squad. From where I sit, the threats to Australia's free and open internet can't be counted on just one hand. If you just sit and listen to government discussions about technology, it's just session-after-session of the blind leading the blind. Nobody in charge appears has a full understanding of how the laws being discussed could be used to harm the internet in Australia.

Here are just a few problems.

E-Safety Commissioner

Let's start with the newest one at the very top, shall we?

The Government is looking to push ahead with this plan today, with legislation set to hit the House floor any minute now.

We don't know the specifics of the plan yet, but we know what the Coalition wanted when it minted the plan back in 2012.

The Coalition's 11-page document on the cybersafety of children (PDF) is a very serious document that talks about committees, action plans and processes.

The Coalition wants a Children's e-Safety Commissioner set up as a one-stop shop for parents, children and teachers. This commissioner would -- among other things -- act to swiftly remove offensive content from websites like Facebook and Twitter within 24 hours of a complaint being made. After that, the case can go to trial if required.

The plan also calls for mobile phone manufacturers to work with the office of the aforementioned Commissioner to slap appropriateness and warning labels on smartphones so that parents understand what the phones can do and how suitable they are for their children.

Phones would be "rated" like a movie or video game, with appropriateness scales going from Suitable for 0-12 and Suitable for 13-16. Also, smartphone manufacturers would be required to sell handsets with parental controls engaged so as to protect children from harmful material if their parents don't know much about tech.

The Coalition Government thinks that the internet is a dangerous place. A place that needs to be fenced off from our kids so that they don’t stub their proverbial toes on the big, bad online world out there. They want their Government-appointed “cyber-commissioner” (kill me now) to help keep kids safe on big social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Wouldn’t you know it, though: Facebook, Twitter and Google all think that’s a stupid idea.

In a submission to the Government’s public consultation into keeping kids safe, the big social players who have offices in Australia roundly condemned the proposal for a Government-appointed online safety commissioner via their local industry body, the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA).

The submission said that the proposal should be “reconsidered”, but it's a warning that doesn't seem to have landed.

"A policy that clamps down heavily on the things that young people can say to each other on larger responsible sites has potential to drive young people to engage in risk-taking behaviour on services that have less well-developed protections in place and are not covered by the legislated scheme," AIMIA wrote, adding:

"Given the government’s commitment to de-regulation and reduction in red tape and lack of evidence that existing mechanisms are not operating as intended, we respectfully submit that the government should reconsider the proposal to introduce legislation to take down content and rather work to extend [existing protocols] to apply to more services."

On the one hand, it's not an entirely bad idea to take action against online bullying. Clearly there needs to be more self-regulation at an industry level because right now, a lot of online bullying material posted by the attackers goes unchallenged.

On the other, it's just more talk designed to placate parental interest groups that is potentially ripe for abuse.

Facebook has said in an additional submission to the government's inquiry that giving people the ability too broad a definition of "objectionable content".

Furthermore, the e-commissioner wouldn't be able to achieve his or her mission of taking down content within 24-48 hours due to the need for proper investigation and action.

So that sucks, what else?


The Anti-Piracy Sledgehammer

According to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is the worst country in the world when it comes to pirating content. Sensible people would say that's because it doesn't come out here fast enough or in an affordable and accessible format, but rather than use the content carrot to crack-down on the issue, we're using the legislative stick instead.

Both the blocking of sites and a so-called three-strikes scheme are being considered, with legislation set to hit the relevant Minister's desks by Christmas.

It has been anticipated for some time that the government would pursue site blocking measures in order to cut down on piracy. Now we know for sure that the government wants to kill access to sites like The Pirate Bay from Aussie connections.

In a leaked discussion paper which details how the government plans to stop piracy, the government details how it would like to see rights-holders given the power to sue ISPs to block sites offering "infringing material":

"A...provision in Australian law could enable rights holders to take action to block access to a website offering infringing material without the need to establish that a particular ISP has authorised an infringement. If adopted, any proposed amendment would be limited to websites operated outside Australia as rights holders are not prevented from taking direct action against websites operated within Australia," the government wrote.

To save time, the government would allow rights holders to sue multiple ISPs at the one time to ensure they all block access to a particular "infringing" site in Australia.

"Such a power would clarify that a rights-holder may list a number of ISPs as respondents to an application for injunctive relief. This would reduce the opportunity for people to 'evade' the operation of such orders by switching ISPs. The websites would need to be blocked by carrier level ISPs at the wholesale level, ensuring that re-sellers would be unable to make blocked sites available to subscribers."

To get a site blocked in Australia, the court would have to be convinced by use of evidence presented by rights-holders that the primary function of any site in question would be to distributed copyrighted material. The court would then take into account the rights of those being affected by the site blocking proposal if it were to pass, and "the importance of freedom of expression".

Brandis has also indicated in a recent speech that he's considering a three-strikes system that sees offenders warned before action is taken against their accounts (emphasis added):

The Government will be considering possible mechanisms to provide a ‘legal incentive’ for an internet service provider to cooperate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks. This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy.

Rumoured third-strike penalties have included slowing down the connection speeds of offenders, or allowing rights-holders to take legal action against offenders.


Mandatory Metadata Collection

This is a pretty big one.

For those who have been left massively out of the loop, data retention is a system that will see telcos and ISPs retain metadata on their customers for a prescribed period of time. The data would then be used by law enforcement agencies to catch bad guys and home-grown terror threats according to the announcement from Prime Minister Tony Abbott today.

The nation, and key members of Parliament, have been divided on the issue, with one politician saying that the system would treat all Australians “like criminals”. Others say that if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear. Hmmmmm.

New legislation set to be introduced by the Government will compel industry players to retain the data, meaning that there’s no escape.

Privacy groups, telcos and ISPs alike see it as a privacy nightmare, simply because it scoops up everyone’s data at once, treating everyone as a suspect when no real crime has been committed by the overwhelming majority of users. Spy agencies see it as a blessing because all the relevant evidence needed to score a conviction against a suspected terrorist is there in black and white and easily accessible.

iiNet's Steve Dalby said it best when he said that collecting every haystack in the nation because there might be a needle in one of them someday is foolish.

The policy could see agencies with warrantless access to metadata abuse the power, which we've already heard about thanks to the head of the AFP saying that the system could easily be used to chase pirates as part of the copyright crackdown.


The Watered-Down NBN

On top of threats to how we use the internet, there's also a problem of access.

Remember when Australia was going to become a beacon of fast, affordable internet? We were going to use fibre-to-the-home, satellite and wireless technologies to build an ambitious network designed at bringing digital equality to the bush and force the digital divide shut.

It was going to be expensive, and that just wasn't something that the Coalition could live with in the end. So now we have a different National Broadband Network strategy: one that leans heavily on the copper network we've wanted to bin for decades. The same one that Telstra -- the people flogging it to the Government -- said was at "five minutes to midnight" back in 2003.

As a result, the Coalition's NBN promises speeds of 25Mbps as a minimum, rather than 100Mbps as a minimum.

I don't care the spin you want to put on it: I know I'd rather wait a few years longer to do it right, and have my patience rewarded with 100Mbps on an upgradable platform rather than 25Mbps on a platform that we'll spend more in the long run replacing.

Furthermore, the aspiration of closing the digital divide now seems further away than ever, given that the NBN Co now needs to compete against private enterprise sooner than anticipated. You can expect them to target flashy new investments like a fibre-to-the-basement trial at cities rather than country towns and regional centres more and more, given that it's what makes more commercial sense. Sigh.


You might have noticed that these are pretty much all Government policies from the current term. You know, except for the metadata one which is a beast that just won't die.

This isn't to say that we're railing against the current Government in a vacuum for a battery of idiotic policy aimed at Australia's free and open internet. We're upset with the so-called Opposition, too. Am I nuts, or has there barely been a squeak from the Opposition on these issues? All I'm seeing is a white picket fence erected to combat an avalanche of derp.

I understand that the Shadow Communications Minister has to pick his battles, as does the rest of the Opposition, but this is one battle I want to see him fight. The fight against misinformation and stupidity. Don't be fooled into thinking that this isn't a fight against stupid ideas, either.

All of this red tape, these plans designed to "fix" the internet is death by 1000 legislative cuts for the free and open internet, were created by people who I imagine aren't so-called digital natives. It's Generation X legislating for generation next, and it's hopelessly out of touch.

Between Attorney General George Brandis explaining metadata with analogue envelopes like a halfwit and the Prime Minister telling the world that his Communications Minister invented the internet in Australia, it's a wonder these people know which bus to catch to get to the internet.

Between the potentially overreaching E-Safety Commissioner, a potentially invasive mandatory metadata retention scheme, a three-strikes anti-piracy scheme, the ongoing Australia Tax problem, a watered-down National Broadband Network, the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership and site-blocking provisions in the Telecommunications Act being wielded by idiots who don't understand the internet, the Land Down Under is turning into a terrible place to be online thanks to legislators who don't understand how it works or how it's used. And that's bullshit.

If you hate it as much as I do, it's probably time to tell someone. Pick up the phone, call your MP (no matter which side they're on), and tell them you use the internet in Australia, and you'd prefer it stayed free. Pick something you hate, and tell them about it.