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The Ethics of the Internet

Transcript from ABC Radio (2CN) 13:05 18 April 1995.

(This transcript was made from a tape of the panel discussion. As far as practical I have recorded what was said, but I have removed several false starts and fumbles. Where I was not sure of the words (Alan Wakeley in particular suffered dropouts on the telephone line he was using) I have placed my transcription in square brackets. Likewise a few clarifying comments have been identified in square brackets. This document is also available in Word 6 for Windows format. Please feel free to contact me (Karl Auer) via with any comments.)
Present were Elaine Harris (our host), Tom Worthington, Karl Auer, John Hilvert, Alan Wakeley.

Elaine Harris: Good afternoon, I'm Elaine Harris, and in just a moment we'll bring together a panel of experts to discuss the ethics of the Internet, if indeed it has any. Has it grown too big, too fast? Could self regulation of content ever work? And even if we wanted to police it or censor it, do we know how? Has technology outstripped the law?

[...introductory material eg. phone-in offer deleted...].

With me this afternoon we have a panel of experts; John Hilvert, who'll be back later on this afternoon to talk computers, he's our journalist about town who talks computers every Tuesday afternoon; Karl Auer, who is President of the PC Users Group in the ACT; Alan Wakeley, Public Affairs Director of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints; and Tom Worthington, Director of the Community Affairs Board, Australian Computer Society, Gentlemen, good afternoon.

John, could I ask you to start the ball rolling for us? Why are we having this debate? what triggered it?

John Hilvert: Okay - the debate actually started with nothing to do with the Internet really. It started with computer games and the possibility that some computer games might be unsuitable for children. So the governments of the States and the Commonwealth decided to set up a special kind of task force, essentially run by the Attorney-Generals and Communications Ministers to enquire into what about games or unsuitable material that is available over bulletin board systems? It's fairly easy to regulate computer games; they're marketed through shops, or they come through Customs -

Elaine Harris: You're buying a package.

John Hilvert: That's right. In much the same way as you regulate videos you regulate computer games, whether they're produced locally or overseas. However, you can also get the same material, because it can be put in bit-mapped form, bits, over cyberspace so to speak. You can get them via bulletin board systems, via overseas, or you can get it via a whole series of distribution outlets that have got nothing to do with Customs or the usual means of distribution for computer games.

Elaine Harris: So in a way you are saying they started out investigating games-

John Hilvert: That's right.

Elaine Harris: -and almost by accident stumbled on this enormous system that we've all known about for ages?

John Hilvert: That's right; I don't want to put it quite so crudely.

Elaine Harris: Sorry!

John Hilvert: I mean the people in the Task Force were very intelligent and very sensitive public servants, but essentially they saw it as "what about the problem of games coming over bulletin board systems?" and they began in February 1994 and they put out their report round about November this year [actually 1994].

What they found was that there's a bit more to it than they thought. In fact they first of all found that only a small percentage of the Australian population have access to bulletin board systems anyway and they also found that the incidence of the misuse of bulletin board systems detected in Australia to date was not high. However, they were concerned about what they regarded as overseas experience and they saw [with] the growing availability and popularity of the technology - including the Internet, that the situation may change.

And they put forward a number of options, from I guess, "do nothing" all the way to full classification of all content on what they call bulletin board systems. But they define "bulletin board systems" so broadly they effectively brought in what we've been talking about most weeks, called the Internet.

This debate has got to the stage where there've been complaints by Senate committees about the Government not doing enough about the issue; but in fact I think that the Government [is] sensitive to the problems, it's just that there are major technical, social, political and even economic issues involved, and these were aired a couple of weeks ago before the Senate Committee on the regulation of community standards from technologies [John meant the Senate Select Committee on community standards relevant to the supply of services using electronic technologies] and this essentially is what the debate's about. It started from computer games but it's now kind of become a general debate about "should we classify bulletin boards and the Internet?"

Elaine Harris: And if so, how? Let's bring Alan Wakeley in now and find out where you stand on this - Alan, Public Affairs Director of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, have you read the reports? Have you been party to these debates and where do you stand on the issue?

Alan Wakeley: Yes, I've certainly read the report and have been a party to the debate. In fact each of your interviewees today attended the Senate Select Committee hearing about two weeks ago where we addressed the problem of inappropriate material on bulletin board systems including the Internet.. Our view is that we need to take a calm and reasoned approach regarding the problem, but we also say that it is a problem. Without being hysterical, I would say to you now that a child is able to use a home computer or the laptop to dial up electronic bulletin boards including the Internet that functionally have the equivalent of an entire adult bookstore online. And in fact we would say that that is a generous understatement; that some of the material that is available on the Internet and other bulletin board systems is far worse than that. We're talking about hardcore and even child pornography.

Elaine Harris: Have you got proof that this is actually happening then?

Alan Wakeley: Yes, the proof is there. In fact a research associate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg late last year did a study which has not been disputed in any way shape or form and found about one million images in all, some of which were available on the Internet, some on other systems, and he tracked down how many times each image had actually been retrieved by computer users and found a total of 6.4 million downloads in the USA alone. And of course if those images were available over there, they were available here.

Elaine Harris: There's no way of knowing though, who's doing the downloading, is there?

Alan Wakeley: That's a question I'd probably ask Karl Auer or Tom Worthington; I understand there is some way of tracking a computer address but I'm not an expert in that regard, but the images are there and that's the problem that we have to address.

Elaine Harris: Alright, now you said what we really need is a reasoned approach; hysterics aren't going to help anyone, but what can we do? It's not an ideal world. It's an enormous network - I mean, that's the whole point of the Internet - what can we do to classify information?

Alan Wakeley: Classification may be a challenge. Let me just come back one step and say that we feel that if there are going to be classifications as there are now on free-to-air television which would restrict the access of children to hardcore - to any form of pornography essentially - without some form of adult supervision, that there needs to be similar sorts of regulation applying to other public media such as computers. Now as to the potential - is it realistic to attempt to try to restrict access to this material, we would suggest that it is. In fact in the USA there are a couple of online services over there; there is Prodigy with 1.1 million subscribers and America OnLine with 150,000 members - both of whom have restricted the availability of this sort of material on their networks.

Elaine Harris: Ah, so in other words, you're saying make it through the subscriber?

Alan Wakeley: Both through the subscriber - well I guess we need to talk of the levels here that can actually access the information and provide the information. You've got a content generator so we feel that content generators should be liable to prosecution, that's any individual who might post messages on the Internet. Then you've got the service provider that might carry the information, then you've got the carriers such as Telstra, then you have another service provider say at our end in Australia who would provide the information to an end user and we would suggest that those service providers such as an OzEmail or a Prodigy or an America OnLine can be required by regulation to restrict access to that sort of information on their systems, on networks where they provide that information to an end user.

Elaine Harris: Alan, don't go away, lets bring Karl Auer and Tom Worthington in now, they've been extremely quiet - gentlemen, would you care to respond to what you've heard already?

Karl Auer: Well, I would. One of the difficulties with the Internet in particular, and to some extent it's been dragged into this by the Task Force Report, I think what we are all talking about here is much more the Internet than bulletin boards even though that's the title of the Task Force Report, the biggest problem with the Internet is sheer volume.

Elaine Harris: There's an awful lot to monitor, isn't there!

Karl Auer: There's far too much to monitor. The other thing is of course that if someone actually attempted to monitor it, the first reaction of large chunks of the community and particularly those parts of the community that had reason to fear such monitoring would immediately move to encryption. And I don't think it's going too far beyond the bounds of reality to say that if that happened there would literally no chance for law enforcement. Not only is it possible to encrypt material, it's possible to embed an encrypted communication in something else that's perfectly innocent so you don't even know there's an encrypted communication going on.

Elaine Harris: So in other words if you try and do something, you're technically in a way going to force the stuff underground?

Karl Auer: That I suppose is the short answer, yes, but that's not to say that no attempt at control should be made. I think the issue that I would raise is that the mechanism that's being suggested, namely legislation, classification, monitoring, enforcement - it's basically the wrong attitude for this particular medium.

Elaine Harris: Go on then, put on the hat of Minister for Communications, what would you do?

Karl Auer: Well, it's actually largely the Option A from the Task Force Report, with some modifications. I certainly don't want to say that I would accept that as ready to roll, but self-regulation has a very good chance of working.

Elaine Harris: Does it work? Ever?

Karl Auer: Well, it's very hard to tell. The Internet is not particularly old. Certainly the Internet and bulletin boards don't have a tradition of any legislated form of regulation. But yes it can work, and it certainly can work a lot better than if you like, bull-at-a-gate legislation.

Elaine Harris: Why?

Karl Auer: Well, what traditions they have, on both the Internet and in the bulletin board community is a very heavy dislike of control.

Elaine Harris: Isn't that just rebellious youth, even as in rebellious youth because it's a fairly new culture?

Karl Auer: That may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that it's very antagonistic towards control, and making an effort to control it via the big stick is almost bound to fail, whereas educating, making people aware of the problem and making the community - because it is a community - aware that there are people who are misusing it and abusing it and offering them tools to help them change that is I think a far more productive way of going about it than simply attempting to legislate it out of existence.

Elaine Harris: Tom Worthington, you're being very quiet, what would you do?

Tom Worthington: I never try and get a word in edgeways with Karl. I suppose the first point is that it's not really for the IT professionals, the computer experts like myself, to tell the rest of the community what to do with this technology.

Elaine Harris: Who is it for then?

Tom Worthington: It's for the community to decide and through their leaders in Parliament to decide what to do.

Elaine Harris: Is that a discreet way of saying "self-regulation"?

Tom Worthington: Well, I suppose I have to admit my bias. I use the Internet every day and I use it for work, I use it to communicate with my friends around Australia and overseas, I get notes about someone's had a child and put my holiday snaps on it - it's just now an everyday part of life.

Elaine Harris: Isn't that really though like somebody who has never discriminated against anyone else saying "equal opportunity legislation is unnecessary" - you won't misuse, don't misuse the system, so you don't really think that it's too much of a problem?

Tom Worthington: No, there needs to be, where there's a clear danger or risk, particularly to children, there needs to be some form of control, some form of protection. It's a matter of how that should be done, how large the risk is seen to be, rather than whether we should do it or not.

Elaine Harris: Do we truly have ways of assessing the extent of that risk? Can we really find out who's accessing what and exactly what they're doing with it? Or is it simply, as Karl suggested, too big for that?

Karl Auer: May I make a point there? It is too big if you attempt to control it, monitor it, look at everything that flows on it. That's if you're a law-enforcement agency. However, remember there's something like 32 to 35 million Internet users out there who are using it just as Tom is, every day. They make a far more sensitive, and a far more effective screen than any single or even multiple law enforcement agency could ever form, and if they're educated, willing to assist and feel bound by a code of ethics to assist in stamping out material that they, the community feel is inappropriate, they'll be far more effective than any law enforcement agency could ever hope to be. Neighbourhood Watch on the Internet!

Elaine Harris: Hm - interesting way of putting it. Alan Wakeley, can I bring you in finally, can you respond to all that, are you happy with that idea or would you still push for that sort of classification/censorship you talked about?

Alan Wakeley: Again, I think as I said at the outset the classification aspect is going to be a [challenge?]. There's no way that a law enforcement agency in the USA or here is going to be able to classify every single image or every single piece of information that comes down the Internet, that would be virtually impossible. But there can be a regulation system which was actually identified in the Task Force Report, it's Option B2. [I guess we oughtn't blind?] the listeners with options here and there. Again, the Internet providers can be required to take reasonable steps to ensure that the material which is available on their systems is appropriate.

In the Senate Committee hearing last week [actually two weeks ago] the options of regulation versus self-regulation were certainly discussed and the Senators expressed the view and I support them entirely, at least one of the Senators expressed the view, that self-regulation has not worked, particularly with regard to pornography and so they feel that there needs to be some form of regulation that takes place.

I guess my worry here is that the industry does not go on the defensive and if you like attempt to justify away some form of regulation - that they actively should be seeking ways of stopping the availability of the material. We've already seen the Internet in Australia go into schools, and go into schools in a way that I believe is effective, where the providers, the Internet providers into local schools are actually restricting access to certain materials. Now that is happening - if we've seen those options already explored and successfully explored by Internet providers locally-

Elaine Harris: Then it shows that it can be done.

Karl Auer: May I add something there? It certainly can be done, I don't think anybody is denying that it can be done. The issue is, what measures does it take to do it, and the answer is fairly clear to anyone who looks at the volume of material and the variety of material and users that are out there on the Internet. There's really only one way it can practically be done, and that's the way that has been adopted by people like Prodigy and the people who are bringing the Internet into schools that you mentioned, and that basically is to carve away huge slabs of the material that's available on the Internet and what is actually produced, what is available to users of those information providers is a very tiny fraction of what's available on the Internet. The amount that has to be carved away in order to make sure that there's nothing which might be interpreted by someone as offensive or inappropriate, in particular to meet the demands of the legislation that was suggested in the Task Force Report is so great that it would simply emasculate the Internet as a service, as an information provider.

Elaine Harris: Alright, John Hilvert, can I bring you in finally here; what happens next with that task force report? And as Karl (and Tom also) said earlier it's really up to the community to say what we want - who can we lobby if we want our say on all this?

John Hilvert: We've been talking about options. The two major options that are before Federal and State Ministers are self-regulation, which Karl opted for, and a form of legislation which would be a bit of a stick in case certain providers or bulletin board systems didn't operate [cooperate?]. I understand there's going to be a meeting in July of the Ministers and so if anyone is interested in putting their point of view on whether there should be regulation or type of regulation, they should try and lobby their local Attorneys-General before July.

Elaine Harris: So make sure Gary Humphries has a copy of your letter!

John Hilvert: Indeed.

Elaine Harris: Thank you all very, very much indeed for being with us this afternoon.

[...remaining outro deleted...]