Australia’s digital dilemma
Canberra's idea of an internet filter that has proved unpopular with its citizens. Quentin McDermott reports
02 Aug 10

Canberra’s idea of an internet filter that has proved unpopular with its citizens. Quentin McDermott reports

When is a broken promise — in political circles — not a broken promise?

Answer — when a major review or citizens assembly is announced, to consider the issue.
Australia is now slap bang in the middle of a Federal Election campaign, with both major parties (Labor and Liberals) running neck and neck. The past three years have been marked by a truly extraordinary series of leadership “spills” on both sides, which have left many commentators gaping in astonishment and asking the proverbial — where will it all end?

On Labor’s side, they were careless enough to lose their own prime minister, Kevin Rudd, upended by his own party (replaced by Julia Gillard) in the wake of bad opinion polls and the accusation that the government he led had lost its way and broken its promises; while the now-ex Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was also unceremoniously tumbled out of office by the current Liberal leader Tony Abbott.

Some will remember Turnbull from his halcyon days as the young lawyer who famously embarrassed the British establishment by successfully defending Peter Wright and his book, Spycatcher, and by wringing the excruciating admission from the British Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, that the British government had been “economical with the truth” in the interests of national security.

Turnbull, in the end, was sunk by his own political convictions; he believes in climate change and was prepared to ask his party to join with the Labor government in bringing about an emissions trading scheme. The party couldn’t stomach it, voted him out, and then voted Labor’s ETS scheme down as well. Kevin Rudd had declared climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time” before the last election; now it was being put on the backburner.

And when — partly as a result of his failure to make it happen — he lost the leadership, the new leader, Julia Gillard, announced that Labor would form a so-called “citizens’ assembly” to consult on climate change before she would consider re-introducing an ETS scheme into parliament. Her announcement was widely criticised and in some quarters, ridiculed.

Something not dissimilar has happened with Labor’s plans for a mandatory internet filter. The filter has made Stephen Conroy, Labor’s Communications Minister, one of the most unpopular ministers in recent Labor history. The proposal has gone through a labyrinthine history of different permutations, starting, three years ago, with the pre-election promise of a family-friendly “clean-feed” filter for any computer in Australia which could be accessed by children.

This was followed one year later by a stunning escalation of the stakes — the promise of new legislation which would ensure that internet service providers (ISPs) wouldn’t just be required to offer parents a clean feed filter, they would also be required to prevent all Australians — and not just children — from accessing any “prohibited” content on blacklists drawn up by ACMA — the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

There then followed two-and-a-half years of fierce campaigning and frenzied debate — of technical studies and grand moral statements — about protecting children and destroying our freedoms. Google and Facebook got involved in the debate; so did most of Australia’s large and small ISP’s, so did churches and children’s groups (not all of whom agreed with each other); and so did the US government, which made it clear that it strongly disagreed with Labor’s plan.

What made Mr Conroy’s plan unique was his intent to broaden the scope of a mandatory filter beyond what many other countries had already arranged — filters which exclude websites promoting the sexual abuse of children — to include (in Australia’s case) all internet content which is refused classification (deemed “RC”) by Australia’s Classification Board. The government’s argument was that any RC content was, by definition, illegal, and so should be banned. Critics argued that no — it wasn’t necessarily illegal; and that some RC material might be harmless or even valuable.

The more the arguments raged, the plainer it must have become to Labor’s backroom boys that whereas, last time round, the idea of a family-friendly filter to help protect kids online was a definite vote-winner, the opposite was probably the case now that the 2007 election promise had morphed into a mandatory filter which many here in Australia saw as creeping political censorship.
So in early July the government backed away from its promise to legislate to introduce a mandatory filter. Senator Conroy announced that the filter would not be put in place until an independent review can be carried out into what content would be banned. The review, Senator Conroy said would take about a year, and would look at what makes up “refused classification” rated content.
As with climate change, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Labor saw the filter as being firmly in the ‘too-hard basket’, electorally speaking. And indeed, it has hardly featured in the current campaign.

When I interviewed Senator Conroy for the ABC’s Four Corners programme, I asked him: “Why don’t you simplify this? Why don’t you limit the blacklist to child pornography as other countries have done?” He replied: “Well we’ve got an existing classification system and the vast majority of Australians have been comfortable with it.”
What this announcement hints at is a government acknowledgement that perhaps the vast majority of Australians are not in fact comfortable with the proposal.

Ironically, three of Australia’s largest internet service providers, Telstra, Optus and Primus have at the same time agreed to block websites known to contain child pornography. Senator Conroy applauds the move and says: “This approach is consistent with what is happening around the world.”

Yes it is, and perhaps in a year or two, following the independent review (and maybe an online citizen’s assembly) an approach which is collaborative with the internet industry in Australia and internationally, and which ensures the fullest possible monitoring and exclusion of child pornography sites, and the identification and arrest of those responsible, will prevail. And the much more contentious plan to forcibly exclude Australia’s RC content from Australia’s computers will be ditched.

But don’t bet on it.

Quentin McDermott is an editor and presenter on the ABC’s Four Corners