Tuesday, July 20, 2010

IT lizards feast on the filter fish

A number of technology media outlets in Australia have just finished running a poll on the mandatory Internet filtering issue, as the latest in a series of examples of what I would call "journalistic activism". The list of titles comprises the Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, APC, PC Authority, PC User, PC World, GoodGearGuide, Gizmodo, Life Hacker, Delimiter, Atomic, ITNews, ITWire, Metaversejournal, OCAU, Australian Sex Party and Kogan.com.au. Whirlpool and the CNET/ZDNet stable of sites ran their own polls with similar results. The main poll, run through PollDaddy, went as follows.

Would you vote for a political party that supports the internet filter?

Yes: 809 votes, 2%
No: 37,228 votes, 97%
Don't care: 390 votes, 1%

Total votes: 38,427

As a former tech journo (a.k.a. "lizard") myself, I am sceptical about the modern phenomenon of journalists putting aside their professional objectivity and actively campaigning against the filter, as with this poll and Gizmodo's Fight the Filter stunt. This is not because I am pro-filter, far from it. My political leanings are far to the left of the journo mainstream, and I am disgusted by the prospect of a filter.

I am old enough to remember at least two separate cycles of the mandatory Internet filtering issue through the federal houses, both of which eventually failed on technical grounds. My view is that it's a complete non-issue in the wider scheme of things, much like how boat people are only 2% of illegal immigrants yet they get 100% of the coverage. I have always trusted in the technology to fail time and time again. All the lobbying in the world is useless compared to the disapproval of people like Mike Malone and Simon Hackett, who have personally put the kibosh on this policy before and will do so again.

Thus, all this breathless wall-to-wall converage of utterances of whichever minister has been tasked with winning over right-wing minor parties in the Senate this time - Richard Alston courting Brian Harradine, Steven Conroy sucking up to Steve Fielding, et al - looks to me like so much hot air. Journos can make a name for themselves by yelling about the issue because it's an easy page view grabber, plus they gain instant brownie points with the strong libertarian faction in the IT audience. However, the more journos report on this issue, the more Alston/Conroy love it, as they can walk into Harradine/Fielding's office and point to Something Being Done about the conservative bugbear issue. After the government has squeezed as many Senate votes as possible out of their inexperienced patsy parliamentarian, the ISPs finally deliver a damning technical report and the minister can throw his hands up in mock shock and console the poor Senator about how it Just Wasn't Possible.

The whole thing is completely cynical, exploiting those who don't know their history and are doomed to repeat it. Sir Humphrey would be proud. It's the sort of issue that I would expect seasoned journos to see through very quickly, yet many continue to fight the good fight, in some cases taking up the bayonets themselves. If you, as a journo, want to treat opinion pieces as an opportunity to air your personal views, that's your right if the editor allows it, but I think that's a waste of the reader's time and should be kept to blogs or Twitter if aired at all. Opinion pieces are an opportunity to take a longer view, delve behind the bare facts that you report elsewhere, and try to identify bigger trends and deeper truths. Again, just my opinion.

The government is safe in the knowledge that the filter will never be a big election issue in the mainstream media, because political journos don't think IT issues are relevant to voters - with strong justification, IMO. Journos can blog until you're blue in the face on Giz or elsewhere but they would be lucky to hear a single question on the subject in the televised election debates. The only people who care enough about it to get passionate are two aspects of the far right: the religious fundamentalists and the libertarians. If the libertarians elected federal Senators with the balance of power I'm sure Conroy would be sucking up to them, but they don't so they can be ignored.

As has already been seen in the first days of the official election campaign, the economy and dog whistle issues dominate the debate. Those of us who have lived through enough elections to have seen it happen before can only groan at the cynicism of the entire fishing expedition.

Note: the above is a fixup of my contribution to a discussion on a private mailing list.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said friend. I personally would put myself in the 1% that don't care. If I was forced to say yay or nay for the filter, the arguments comparing Australia to China, well partially correct (both would have "firewalls) the rules on those "firewalls" make the comparison complete wrong (its a bit of the "A cow has four legs, a table was four legs, all four legged tables are cows type argument) and so normally throw me towards the yay argument.

Interesting you mention that main things the political jurnos are interested in are economical issues as I think the cost/return argument in the filter is the best anti-filter argument the No-clean feed campaigners have is in fact the best and the one that would get most wide spread traction!
Tell the wider community not that it won't work or it is bypassable but that for the millions or 100 of millions that it will cost, it won't stop the things those that are okay with a bit of censorship (or want lots of it) want blocked anyway (even before you get to the fact anyone can bypass it).

Probably slightly off topic, but any, just my 2 cents!

9:43 pm, July 20, 2010  
Blogger David J said...

I'm not worried by journalists taking sides on the Government's Net censorship plan; objectivity is over-rated. What we should demand is honest facts and analysis that conforms with them.

That's where I get frustrated. Anti-censorship activists will no doubt claim this statistically worthless poll shows that 98% of Australians oppose Net censorship, which is laughable.

There's a campaign going around to try and vote Senator Conroy out, which shows how little some anti-censorship activists understand politics. Even if every single one of those 30,000 people lived in Victoria, and even if every one of them had previously preferenced ALP in the Senate, and even if every single one of them voted to deny the ALP their preference, Conroy would still be safely elected.

I think a far more useful plan is to spread ways to get around censorship, such as




10:24 pm, July 20, 2010  
Anonymous Leefe said...

So, I suppose you are saying "IT jurnos should stop feeding the trolls" ?

10:51 pm, July 20, 2010  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

Leefe: I suppose my thesis is that "journos should not become trolls".

11:07 pm, July 20, 2010  

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