Internet and an Election

Before the election was called the Howard government (being unethical in every way) started using public money to campaign. Part of this election campaign was two documents sent out to every home (AFAIK) coupled with a media campaign, one was about children and drugs, the other was about children and the Internet. I have to wonder how many people were fooled by this, including a picture of John Howard on the first page after the index made it pretty clear what the purpose was.

Before I analyse the content of the documents one thing to keep in mind is the cost of the Iraq war, which the Sydney Morning Herald [1] estimates at $3,000,000,000. Note that this doesn’t include the life-long medical and psychiatric care that some veterans will require or the cost to the economy of such people not being productive tax-payers. It does note that 121 employees of the Australian military have been discharged on medical grounds. If each of those 121 people was disabled in a way that significantly impacted their life then the cost could be as much as $242,000,000. Let’s not assume that everyone who is currently serving and regarded as completely fit will be fine in 10 years time either.

The Prime Minister gives a personal introduction to each document, the “NetAlert” document states that $189,000,000 is being spent to protect children on the Internet. The “Talking with your kids about drugs” document states that “more than $1.4 billion” has been spent to combat illicit drug use, I’m not sure what time period that covers – it seems to be his entire 10 years as PM so that would be $140,000,000 per annum.

Obviously declaring a war of aggression against Saddam Hussein is something that he considers to be more important than protecting Australian children.

Now the content of the NetAlert document. It starts with $84,800,000 to provide access to “the best available internet filtering technology“. I have to wonder, how much would it cost to develop some new Internet filtering software from scratch, or what the opportunity cost might be to re-assign resources from organisations such as CSIRO to the task. I expect that in either case the total would be a lot less than $84,800,000. Developing free software for the task would be a much better use of resources and would also allow cooperation with similar programs in other countries. In the unlikely event that $40,000,000 was required to develop such free software it probably wouldn’t be difficult to get a few other governments to kick in some money and make it $10,000,000 per country. Of course saving $70,000,000 doesn’t sound like much (a mere $3 per person in the country), but it is significantly more than the Free Trade Agreement with the US [2] was supposed to bring in (from memory it was promoted as improving the economic position of the country by $50,000,000 but the best available information is that it made our balance of trade worse).

$43,500,000 in additional funding for the police to combat online child sex exploitation is small but OK (it would be better if some of that $84,800,000 had been saved on filtering software and allowed greater expenditure in this area). But it should be noted how child rape in Aboriginal communities is used as a political issue and nothing constructive is done about the problem [3]. I believe that protecting children against rape is far more important than controlling illegal porn (which is where the majority of that $43,500,000 will go).

Another possible avenue of research would be on more secure computer systems for Australian homes. It’s all very well to install some filtering software, but if the PC running the software in question is hacked then it’s immediately turned off. Attacks that involve turning web cameras on without the knowledge or consent of the owner are not uncommon either, it’s not unreasonable for a child to get out of bed and then do some homework on their computer before getting dressed – with an insecure computer and a web-cam connected this could be a bad thing… If the Australian government was to mandate that all government data be stored in open formats and that all communication with government computer systems can be done with free software (as a matter of principle you should not have to buy expensive software to communicate with your government) then the incidence of insecure desktop OSs would decrease. The document does recommend some basic OS security mechanisms, but if you use an OS that is insecure by design it’s not going to work.

The core message of NetAlert is that children should be supervised when using the net. There is one significant problem with this, full supervision of children requires that at least one parent is not working full-time. In a previous post I compared median house prices and median incomes [4] with the conclusion that even with both parents working it’s difficult to afford a house. It would be difficult for a single income that is below the median to be used to pay the rent on a decent house. So it seems that a significant portion (maybe the vast majority) of Australian families will be forced to do what the government would consider to be a compromise of the Internet safety of their children by having both parents working full-time jobs to pay off a large mortgage (or in some cases merely to pay rent). I believe that making houses more affordable would improve the protection of children and provide other significant benefits for society. If you look at chart 1 and chart 2 on the House Prices research note from the Australian Parliamentary Library [5] you can see a significant increase in the difference between CPI increases and house prices increases since 1996 (when John Howard became Prime Minister) and a significant increase in the ratio of house prices to average income. The charts only include data up to 2006 so don’t show the effects of the Howard government’s “workplace reform” which lowers wages for many people who are below the median income. John Howard is responsible for houses being less affordable and parents being forced to spend more time working and less time supervising their children, I find it offensive that he now tells people to spend more time supervising their children.

The document does have some good basic advice about how to supervise children and what level of supervision is necessary. The problem is that children from an early age know more than the typical parents. I doubt the ability of typical Australian parents to implement some of the supervision suggestions on 12yo children. I have been considering writing my own documents on how to filter and monitor child Internet access but the main problem is determining ways of doing so that can be implemented by someone who is not a computer expert.

In summary, the Howard government is responsible for reducing the supervision of children and therefore exacerbating the problems that they are claiming to solve. Their NetAlert program provides some information that can’t be implemented by the majority of Australians and entirely skips some of the most sensible steps such as using only secure OSs on machines that will be used on the Internet. I believe that Fedora and CentOS should be recommended by the government in this regard because of the combination of good security by default (of which SE Linux is only one component) and the ease of use. Computers are cheap enough that most families with good Internet connections (the ones at risk in this regard) have multiple computers so no extra cost would be incurred.

1 comment to Internet and an Election

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