Government Internet Scare Campaign

So you're all probably aware of those ads we're seeing from the government designed to scare parents into monitoring or preventing their child's Internet use. Apparently, they have been spin-doctored in a big way.

Via Gizmodo Australia, I discovered an article on the Sydney Morning Herald website with a fairly critical analysis of this government campaign.
The advertisements are costing about $22 million, and are part of a $189 million NetAlert program designed to "save our children". The SMH claims that this money is being spent to "whip up fear about the largely non-existent threat of online sexual predators". When you read on, you can see that their criticism is legitimate.

Here are some anomalies with the campaign as reported by SMH:

  • The number of people who have been charged and convicted for approaching minors online with a view to paedophilia (called grooming) in the last two years in NSW is one. Yes, one person in two years.
  • The ads claim that more than half of Australian children have been contacted by a "stranger" online. It appears that the definition of "stranger" includes friends of friends. So if you're a child, and a friend from school introduces you to a friend of theirs, then you contribute to this statistic.
  • If the previous point wasn't bad enough, it seems that contact from a "stranger" also refers to unsolicited email; i.e. spam. Yes, that's right, more than half of Australia children have received spam; a statistic that has nothing to do with paedophilia at all, and frankly seems a bit low to me.
  • Only 8 percent of children even mentioned the possibility of talking to "bad people" when asked about concerns with the Internet. Their major concerns appeared to be popup ads and speed issues.
In the Sydney Morning Herald article, there's almost no mention of misleading statistics regarding pornography or inappropriate content. That's fair enough; the research that this campaign is based on shows that more than half of Australian children have done something online that their parents wouldn't approve of. But what about offline? What do you think the response would have been if the same children had been asked whether they had done something in real life that their parents wouldn't approve of? And what constitutes these acts that parents "wouldn't approve of"? I can imagine that talking to friends after 11pm might fit that description, as would playing games when they were supposed to be studying.

Now, don't get me wrong, I acknowledge that material on the Internet that is inappropriate for children is far too easy to find. There should be technologies and mechanisms available to allow parents to monitor and restrict their child's access to such content. And that is what the government has tried to do with their free Internet filter. The one that was cracked in 30 minutes by a kid in grade 10 at school. As an IT guy, I can appreciate that it is a very hard problem, but with $189 million dollars to spend and the ability to write legislation, you'd think a reasonable solution might be forthcoming. At least one that would last longer than half an hour. Why not require that ISPs implement a filter at their end that can be turned on and off by the account holder? The filter can't be cracked by your 15 year old if he can't see it.

I appreciate that the government is taking the danger of the Internet seriously, really I do. But using misleading and essentially false statistics to implant fear into the minds of parents is a horrible solution.

Some parents go seriously overboard when it comes to "protecting" their children. I know parents who have prevented their child from seeing their friends outside school hours for more than a year because the child skipped school one day. I know parents who have forbidden their 16 year-old daughter from watching the Austin Powers movie because it had a character called "Alotta Fagina". What would be the response of parents like this if they saw an ad suggesting that over half of Australian children have been approached by a paedophile online? I have little doubt that the children would be prevented from accessing the Internet at all, or at the very least, restricted to Internet usage with a parent sitting next to them. Maybe the latter is not so bad, but God forbid if the kid accidentally stumbled upon a search result that contained inappropriate material.


Damian Brady

I'm an Australian developer, speaker, and author specialising in DevOps, MLOps, developer process, and software architecture. I love Azure DevOps, GitHub Actions, and reducing process waste.