The Financial Cost of Internet Censorship

The positive economic benefits of next generation broadband could be as high as $90b. However, the conservative Labor Party proposed filters could sabotage these gains significantly.

Duncan Riley provides an excellent appraisal of what the costs might be if Conroy’s net censorship schemes are implemented.

The first test paper released by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found that under trial conditions (so not a full black list), filtering reduced speeds between 2% and “in excess of” 75%, with three of the 6 products tested coming in at between 20-30%. Since that report it has been suggested that the filters with the lowest success rate are the quickest, so a proper implementation of a censorship regime would likely, at best cause a 20% drop in internet speeds, but likely significantly higher again.

Direct cost

Australian ISP’s have already stated that they are likely to pass on the cost of filtering data directly to users (ref). Further, a broad scale filter proposed by the Government may also drive up related costs, such as data center staff needed to deal with an increase in customer complaints when they can’t access sites.(ref).

No hard figure has been proposed by the industry, but even a small increase in internet charges would create a negative impact on the Australian economy.

At the end of June 2008, there were 7.23 million internet subscribers in Australia (ABS). An increase in costs of only $10 per month would immediately cost Australian internet users $867.6 million a year in additional direct costs. A $25 increase in internet access would result in an additional $2.169 billion in direct costs.

Indirect costs

Australia already has some of the slowest internet speeds in the developed world. A 2008 study (link) found that average internet speeds in Australia was 1.7 mbps, up from 1 mpbs in 2006, when Australia was ranked 26th out of 27 developed countries (ref).

The amount of the indirect cost will depend very much on the amount speeds drop. A 75% cut would bring the average speed down to 425kbps, where as a 25% cut to 1.275mpbs.

The cuts in speed would punish small businesses and the less well off more deeply than large businesses and those who can already afford high speed access. The June 2008 figures from the ABS found that only 43% of Australians have speeds higher that 1.5mpbs, and 21.7% of “broadband” subscribers only have speeds between 256kbps and 512kbps. A 75% cut on a 256kbps account would result in a 64kbps connection, basically dialup.

Remarkably, some 2 million Australians are still using dialup, with a maximum speed of 56kbps.

Slower speeds mean quite simply that it takes longer to do business, and that has a negative effect on productivity.

South Australian Liberal Senator, Cory Bernardi, adds more weight to the argument against internet filtering.

I identify myself as a social and fiscal conservative and most people who know me would agree with that assessment. As such, one could reasonably expect me to support ISP filtering as a means of ensuring inappropriate content remains unavailable via the internet.

Yet I have grave reservations about the Labor Party proposal on mandatory ISP filtering which is described as a ‘clean feed’ – words that just sugar-coat compulsory censorship of whatever the government deems you are not allowed to see.

While I strongly believe that anything we can do to prevent access to illegal material is a lawful and moral obligation, there is a world of difference between illegal and inappropriate. The latter being a personal assessment in which I also recognise that my own standards and beliefs are not shared by all in our community.

Further, the nature of the internet means that we can’t really classify content for availability only at a certain time or for certain ages like we can with television, movies or some printed content. This is a concern where young people may be exposed to inappropriate content inadvertently.

There are also broader philosophical reservations about allowing government to be the ultimate judge of what people should and should not have access to. I believe in small government – not big brother where personal responsibility is subservient to the State.

There are already many PC-based filters available that will prevent access to ‘blacklisted’ sites and allow PC end users to tailor the filters to meet the particular requirements of their households. Critics of these filters claim that they are easily disabled, but as I wrote earlier, prohibited material will always be available to those willing to break the rules.

Among the many advocates for ISP filtering that I have spoken with, including Minister Stephen Conroy, no one has been able to explain to me exactly how it will work and what content will (or should be) filtered.

In some cases, advocates believe content bans should be extended to all nudity and even stories featuring consensual relations between adults. (I had to describe it like that because the word ‘sex’ might prevent you from being able to access this page!)

It has been suggested that there should be a rating system for internet content similar to how ACMA rates media content.

When I have asked how this could work, no one that I have spoken to has any clear idea, yet they all maintain that ‘it needs to be done’.

That may be so, but at what cost?

There is no stronger supporter of families than myself. My political life is a commitment to strengthening families and changing our nation through the development of our children. However, I also believe that in most circumstances, families know better than government what is best for their children.

Parental responsibility cannot and should not be abrogated to government – if it is, our society will only become weaker.

Yes, illegal content should be banned from the web. It is illegal after all, but it is wrong to give the government a blank cheque to determine what is appropriate for us to view on the internet. That is a job for families, working with government.