Internet Content – parent education is the key
Senate Adjournment Speech
19 March 2003
The recent release of the Australia Institute’s sensational report Youth and pornography in Australia: evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects has re-ignited public debate about under-age access to sexually explicit material on the Internet. This issue is not new, even though many parents-just as the co-author of this report, Clive Hamilton, said on radio-are experiencing the Internet through their children’s eyes for the very first time.
In fact it was a debate that we had here in this chamber nearly four years ago when the coalition introduced the online services bill. This legislation sought to do a number of things. It decreed online content as analogous to video content for the purposes of classification.
It created a framework for an industry code of practice which included ISPs being required to provide filter downloads on their web site. It also established a take down regime for sexually explicit web sites without age protection on servers in Australia administered by the Australian Broadcasting Authority. The legislation also established NetAlert, an independent body designed to host the hotline for complaints and provide information to net users about filters.
At the time, the coalition argued that this would protect Internet users from unwanted exposure to sexually explicit material. However, there was a mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of the government’s regime. Because of the open, global nature of the Internet, it is not possible to unequivocally block certain types of content.
It was only through the cooperation of the Internet Industry Association that a code of practice that gave some credibility to the government’s regime was established. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act is largely symbolic and, I think, a lazy attempt to mislead Australians into believing that the coalition actually cared about and had met the objective of helping protect Australian citizens, especially children, from illegal and highly offensive material.
This is not the case and there has been little effort to empower parents with the knowledge and confidence they require. As a result, suspicion and concern about their children’s use of the Internet has grown in the minds of many parents. At the time of debating this act, Labor argued that the concept of legislating to require filter use at ISP level was not technically feasible. This is still the case. Whilst filters have improved, their use at the desktop is still the most effective and gives parents the greatest control. We argued then, and argue still, that the best ways to help parents make the right decisions for their children are to provide the resources to educate them about the risks of some online content and make the tools for managing Internet content at the desktop at home accessible.
I should say that there are equally powerful arguments for educating parents about the vast merits of Internet usage, but, unfortunately, that angle has never featured strongly in the coalition’s agenda; rather, their approach is reactionary. The coalition choose to characterise the Internet as a threat, not as an opportunity.
So when this latest Australia Institute report was published, I was disturbed by the tendency for some to immediately succumb to the sensationalism and hyperbole without a thought for the facts as they have been established in previous debates in this place, in Senate inquiries and in a number of reputable studies.
Independent experts continue to expose flaws in filter technology. A 2001 CSIRO report found that, despite improvements in filtering technology over the years, there is no filter that is 100 per cent effective in keeping out all undesirable material without simultaneously blocking acceptable content.
Even the regulatory body responsible, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, acknowledged in relation to filter technology that none of the products currently available meet users’ expectations with regard to blocking accuracy, useability and system performance. Therefore, the suggestion that the entire Internet should be filtered is unrealistic and inappropriate.
Unfortunately, such a short memory regarding the debate in 1999 about Internet content has led the coalition to already offer support for greater censorship by actively considering proposals for unworkable, quick fixes that involve filtering the Internet at the ISP level.
Let us be clear about this: this would mean that all Internet content available to Australians would be prefiltered by ISPs in accordance with the standards of censorship preferred by the coalition government. This ridiculous proposition is made even more absurd when the weaknesses of filtering technology at this level effectively ensure that it would not work anyway.
For parents unfamiliar with the Internet, all this seems like intimidating and impenetrable jargon. I have a great deal of sympathy for people in that position. The role for the government is to remove this barrier to parental involvement with their children’s use of the Internet. This can be done through education, through raising parents’ awareness, information sharing about solutions, helping parents develop practical Internet skills and encouraging them to be involved in the Internet in the home.
Unfortunately, the coalition has quite shamefully underfunded the very organisation they set up to educate parents about safe Internet surfing. NetAlert has been staffed by the coalition over the past three years, receiving over $1.5 million per year to educate the rapidly growing Internet using community in Australia. Following a very shaky start, most of this money has been spent on shallow ‘brand building’ and promotion. The real work is yet to be done.
The NetAlert Executive Director, Alan Tayt, has had to go cap in hand to the minister for $10 million that he estimates will be needed to do the job effectively over the next three years. Without a coalition commitment, NetAlert could be wound up in the next month, leaving parents high and dry in their efforts to protect their kids.
The coalition has also dragged its feet combating spam email, a major source of unwanted Internet content that could lead to inadvertent exposure to sexually explicit material by under 18-year-olds. Last year the minister finally acknowledged that spam was of concern because it might contain illegal or offensive material. He said he would produce a report on spam ‘to be made public by midyear’-that was last year, 2002.
Yet aside from an incredibly light touch ‘interim paper’ there has been nothing, not a peep. Meanwhile Labor has already put out a discussion paper on spam and is examining policy options for achieving a solution to this problem. Finally, the coalition has still not handed down their promised evaluation of the online services act, which the minister said in this place on 24 May 1999 would be due on 1 January 2003.
On the other hand, Labor has a constructive alternative to the coalition’s lazy hands-off approach. This is to make a genuine effort to assist parents, to help them educate themselves and empower them to manage their Internet content. Parents do not have to be rocket scientists or computer experts to protect their families. It is their choice. With a little assistance parents can learn how to use Internet and email filters to screen out a great deal of unwanted content.
Despite the coalition’s inaction, Internet service providers have a responsibility under the industry code of practice to provide these filters and information about their use. The industry has also embarked upon a number of initiatives designed to better identify child-friendly content. Of course, deficiencies in filters mean that parents cannot abdicate their responsibility to monitor their children’s Internet use, but there are other simple steps they can take.
For example, parents can ensure their kids conduct Internet searches on ‘white list’ search sites like LookSmart.com or Yahooligans.com, which vet their searchable content. The former, LookSmart, an Australian company, pops up a warning if search results may contain unsuitable content, while the latter, Yahooligans, only searches through sites previously determined by the company to be suitable for children.
Parents can also take commonsense steps such as putting a computer in a well used area of the house and providing guidance to children about what they view, just as happens with television. Parents have the right and the responsibility to decide what their child views. The role of government is to provide as much assistance as possible to help achieve this, not to make these decisions for them.
If one thing is to be learnt from the failure of the existing regulatory regime it is that ad hoc censorship and high-level filtering are not the answer. It is about time the coalition government concentrated on effective, realistic solutions and took a serious interest in helping parents to combat this problem.