Overton Roots

Image of a "stop" traffic sign, viewed from a very low angle.

The Overton Window is one of the most interesting theories around how people behave and how other people react. In its simplest form, it describes how easy it is to make an unacceptable statement acceptable by first deploying a decoy outrageous statement. It's an oversimplification by about the same degree as saying Moore's Law means technology gets twice as fast periodically when Moore's Law refers to the amount of transistors on a chip - twice as fast is really just an estimate of the result - but it's a servicable description of an interesting phenomenon.

A blinding flash appeared on Twitter's horizon followed by a rolling shockwave yesterday when ZDNet's Josh Taylor interviewed coalition MP and chair of the coalition's Online Safety Working Group, Paul Fletcher. Taylor's interview highlighted Fletcher shifting the Overton Window slightly by introducing a new outrage; The Coalition's Policy to Enhance the Online Saftety of Children (complete with the same stock photography as the working group's discussion paper), proposed standards that will;

  • involve mobile phone operators installing adult content filters on phones which willbe switched on as the default unless the customer proves he or she is at least 18years of age; and

  • involve major internet service providers providing home network filters for all newhome broadband services, which will be switched on as the default unless thecustomer specifies otherwise.

So far the story is a familiar one. The coalition's online safety policy is almost identical in scope and intent to the Labor party's 2007 Plan for Cybersafety (the original version) in that it outlines a range of concerns that children and adults are at risk of some amorphous and ill-defined danger on the Internet. The answers to the not-really-problems are largely identical too; the establishment of a formal office to oversee the online space (a commissioner, ombudsman or tzar) and the compelling of those involved in the delivery of Internet services to also implement governmental controls to manage what people use the services for. The coalition's proposal even used the eerily familiar trick of attempting to describe the ideas as aligning Australia with overseas efforts that are already complete and successful, deftly stepping around the fact that Australia has a 15 year history of pretending that the problem of the Internet has been solved overseas, trying to implement bad policy to match those (entirely ficticious or at the very least inapplicable) overseas success stories.

The PDF of the policy has been pulled from the Liberal party's website but is still available {hosted on Scribd}. The ALP's original opt-in policy which later became opt-ou t, then opt-out for some material and compulsory for others, then mandatory for three different definitions of inappropriate content over a four year period is available here {hosted at Stilgherrian.com}.

Even though the coalition's plan was plucked off at the soil-line there is plenty to be wary of. The Hand-wringing that brought us the "poorly worded" policy (as it's being described this morning) grew out of the roots of the working group's discussion paper which moots all sorts of other points largely based on moral panic and mythology. Words are used like "co-operative regulatory scheme", "better engagement with Internet providers" and every other root which grew every other bad policy decision of the previous six years of ALP online policy.

The coalition has seen what is patently unacceptable in policy. Now what remains is to see what tolerable policy sprouts from the same roots.

Image: Thecrazyfilmgirl