Why Australia needs to trial net filters

For over 25 years I have worked in Australia and overseas to prevent the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. One of the most horrendous developments that we have experienced in the last 15 years is the dramatic explosion in the global trade of child sexual abuse images on the internet.

Critics have argued that ISP filtering will be costly and slow down the internet but based on overseas experience this is not the case, says Child Wise CEO Bernadette McMenamin

The world was relatively unprepared to deal with this unprecedented phenomenon and it took some years for governments, law enforcers and child protection organisations to not only understand the nature of this issue but also how we should combat this trans-national problem.

Understanding why people in their hundreds of thousands around the world want to view images of children being raped is beyond belief to most people; however understanding the demand factor is critical and still a work in progress.

There are many complex reasons why people view child sexual abuse images on the internet. Not all viewers are child sex offenders. Some view these images out of curiosity or because it is taboo. Others seem to believe they will not be caught or do not believe they are harming a child by simply viewing these images. Others are serious child sex offenders who offend against children and use these images to share, trade and justify their abuse and beliefs.

While research is growing in this area, one thing is certain. Viewing child sexual abuse images on the internet can lead to direct contact offences against children. We as a nation must do all we possibly can to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation whether they be Australian children or children from overseas.

This is why I and most other child protection advocates and practitioners support the Federal government’s ISP filtering proposal. I also believe that the majority of Australians given the correct information on what the ISP filtering proposal involves would also agree.

In late 2006 Child Wise commissioned AC Neilson to conduct a survey of 1497 Australian internet users over the age of 18. The key outcomes of the survey were that 83 per cent believe that ISP’s should block all child pornography, 76 per cent would change to an ISP that blocked child pornography and 64 per cent are not confident that home based internet filters are effective.

Surprisingly Child Wise has also received calls from child sex offenders who support mandatory ISP filtering stating that this blocking mechanism would have reduced their desire to abuse children as their access to child sexual abuse images actually facilitated their offending.

The Federal Government’s proposal to block child sexual abuse images at the ISP level is only one strategy amongst many others that should be employed. Clearly we need to provide education to families and children to keep them safe on the internet. Law enforcement and education are also key strategies and prominent in the Federal Government’s Safe internet Policy.

Hundreds of millions of dollars is already being spent on law enforcement which is commendable but this only addresses the problem after the abuse has occurred. Millions of dollars is being spent on internet safety education and this is a critical strategy to keep children safe on the internet to prevent them from viewing illegal and harmful material as well as preventing them from being groomed by online sex offenders.

However ISP filtering of child pornography images would strengthen these current endeavors by blocking child pornography at the internet server level.

Critics of this new scheme have argued that ISP filtering of child sexual abuse images simply will not work. However these filters are actually working very effectively in Scandinavian countries and in the UK as well as in recent trials in New Zealand.

Critics have also argued that ISP filtering will be costly and slow down the internet. Again based on overseas experience this is not the case. The recent NZ study where filters were used to block child sexual abuse images on the internet found that the average cost increase per user would be approximately 4 cents per year.

Critics have also stated that ISP filtering of child sexual abuse images is censorship.

My argument is that how can blocking illegal material (which should not be produced or stored in the first place) be censorship?

Viewing child pornography should not even be considered as freedom of speech.

Another argument against ISP filtering is that most child sex offenders share images of children being sexually abused through networks such as peer to peer and newsgroups which will not be blocked through this new ISP filtering scheme. Out of all the critics’ arguments this is the one I agree with. No, not all images of children being sexually abused on the internet will be blocked but a certain number of these images will be. No one really knows whether the amount of images that will be blocked will be 20, 30, 50+ per cent but surely a reduction in any amount is worth the effort.

Currently the Federal government is conducting a trial into ISP filtering to ensure that it is effective to prevent access to child sexual abuse images. Again I would like to reiterate this is only one strategy amongst a suite of other strategies to prevent the sexual abuse of children on the internet. This trial will last a number of weeks and then after that verdict the results will be independently assessed to decide whether ISP filtering will work.

I believe it can and I hope that the trials will prove that blocking child sexual abuse images can work effectively and efficiently.

Having said that I remain open minded as I hope the critics of the scheme will wait until the trials have been independently conducted to decide on whether Australia should take this leap into ISP filtering.

If these trials do not work then I will accept the results – end of story. I just hope the critics, whatever their beliefs and motivations may be, will take the same attitude and not attempt to derail the trials if at the end ISP filtering of child sexual abuse images will protect the children of the world.



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