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Tory Tony Nearly Followed Censorship Cameron

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In the dying heartbeats before Australia's September 7 election, both major parties have - as they always do - left releasing their costings and unpopular policies to beyond the last minute; too late for anyone to properly scrutinise. But wading through the paddock of political manure, many came across and were startled by this hidden gem: the Coalition's carbon copy of British PM David Cameron's internet filters.

"Empowering parents" to have a false sense of security while ignoring the concealed nature of child grooming and cyber-bullying hardly sounded like an effective measure to "protect children online", as the policy claimed. If anything, it added to the Coalition's list of embarrassingly ill-informed tech-related claims; a lemon of a national broadband network will be bad enough.

However, a press release which came out only mere hours after the policy was announced stated that "[the] policy which was issued today was poorly worded and incorrectly indicated that the Coalition supported an "opt out" system of internet filtering for both mobile and fixed line services."

Instead, "the Coalition will encourage mobile phone and internet service providers to make available software which parents can choose to install on their own devices to protect their children from inappropriate material."

But I still feel sorry for the Coalition's Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, Malcolm Turnbull. He must not have felt this embarrassed since his leader, Tony Abbott, claimed he "virtually invented the Internet in this country". But Mr Turnbull surely had to sign off on this latest insult to IT nerds.

To think they were both Rhodes Scholars once. It feels like a robbery on reason - what did they learn? I suppose that if they can get away with it in their education, why not politics? But, I'm left wondering, to what end?

"Our policy will increase the support provided to parents and teachers so they are better equipped to manage the online activity of children in their care," they stated in their original policy. Well, let's take a quick look at that claim and what has been happening in the UK.

As per Cameron's current proposal, ISPs will be responsible for filtering their service to all new broadband customers and then for all customers by the end of 2014. They will likely do this using network-level filters, which would employ both white- and blacklists. But how effective are these sorts of measures? The truth: abysmal.

Go to any high school in Australia or the UK which has an existing Internet filter based on these same principles of network-level filtering. Every child there who wants to could circumnavigate such filters before Tony Abbott or David Cameron could say, "Porn."

Be it a simple web-based proxy, a virtual private network or using an alternate domain name system lookup, the tools are out there and readily available to teenagers everywhere. It might sound like Ancient Greek to you, but all it takes is a little bit of know-how and a laptop with battery-life. Far simpler than one might think, it renders an ill-conceived A$10 million policy like that published today by the Coalition about as useless as a computer without a mouse. There's no point.

However, their apparent corrected policy position is to make available user-device software. Well, that's even simpler to workaround and can surely be no better than what is currently available in the marketplace today.

Even if this was a good policy idea, the fact it's not going to work makes it wasteful. What's worse is that parents will believe it does work, unaware of the danger their children might still be in. And there's no-one harder to cure than the healthy.

At least Australians will remain safe, it seems, from a David Cameron-esque Internet filter. However it was a very alarming, last-minute policy, and it is troubling to think that it was ever even entertained.

The Internet remains a potentially dangerous place for children. But even an effective Internet filter or security software will never replace proper parenting and honest communication with your child about online dangers. We can do better for our children and for everyone's future Internet freedoms. Besides, given the state of our economies, we can't afford such ineffectual and senseless spending.

Erratum: The original publication of this article was written prior to Mr Turnbull's media release on Thursday, 5 September 2013, which explained that the originally released "opt out" policy was incorrect and poorly worded. The article has been updated to reflect this announcement.