My thoughts on the Filter

Thursday, December 17th, 2009 @ 9:42AM

UPDATE: This post was followed up by another post summarising core points from these comments: and then by
Q and A from my thoughts on the internet filter and the specific ammendments the Senator is proposing to the Labor Caucus to modify the policy are on the My thoughts on the Safer Internet Group statement blog post.

First, a bit of history: Whilst the call for a mandatory filter had originally come from some Christian and parent groups, the idea attracted cross factional attention in the ALP when Clive Hamilton from the Australia Insititute brought a broad left view into the debate calling for a mandatory filter, not to mention declaring that it was indeed feasible prior to the 2004 election campaign. This had an impact within the party. Very soon after the 2004 election I was moved out of the IT shadow portfolio by Mark Latham, and federal Labor adopted a policy of filtering, provided it was cost effective and technically feasible.

When the Rudd Labor opposition reaffirmed the policy on a mandatory internet filter prior to the 2007 federal election, it was largely a conceptual policy that sought to protect people who felt vulnerable and exposed to unwanted online content, that in other mediums had some form of censorship applied. The details still had to be developed. It was also contingent on an ISP filter actually being effective and workable.

At the time, I took comfort in the seemingly well-established ‘fact’ that such a filter was not technically feasible and that any reasonable test would establish this ‘fact’ yet again. Certainly at the time of the former Howard Government’s notorious Online Services Bill in 1998, studies showed that such filters were neither cost effective nor technically feasible.

This view of technical non-feasiblility was echoed strongly around the industry in 2007 and since, so the Minister did what a sensible Minister would do pursuant to the policy on the books: test the technology and the industry’s claims along with it.

In the meantime, the debate and discussion about the merits or otherwise of mandatory censorship per se being applied to the internet manifested itself instead in discussion and debate about just what was proposed to be filtered.

To Minister Conroy’s credit, he tackled the issue of defining exactly what was proposed as being filtered: the content that could not be regulated here because it was not on a server in Australia, and was incabable of being classified within our system of classification, hence refused classification, or ‘RC’.

His announcement that it was RC material that was to be subject to the filter was helpful and resolved some concern about the lack of detail of what was to be censored and fuelled conspiracy theories about the loss of freedoms. Material that is deemed RC by a properly skilled entity such as the classification board affords more confidence than the previous methodology, which had given rise to much of the concern about unjustified, unfair or plain wrong blacklisting of web sites based on complaints because there was no transparent system or method of picking the sites.

With the issue of ‘what’ being resolved, the ‘how’ still remained to be resolved by a series of ‘tests’ conducted by industry. For all intents and purposes (and I am aware of the debate about the technical detail and scope) the testers have said that the tests were successful (media release and report).

Did I expect this? Frankly, no. Was Clive Hamilton right? Probably not at the time he said it. But again, for all intents and purposes, the Minister had abided by his commitment to ensure the policy was grounded in evidence that it did what it said it did. The industry’s original claims that the filters were not feasible were proved false.

What Minister Conroy has never said is that the filter will guarantee people will never be exposed to RC content. He can’t say that and he understands why. What he has said all along is that this is one tool in a tool kit of policies to make the internet safer.

This is where a lot of passionate opponents of the filter get very frustrated “well if it doesn’t work 100%, why do it?” The answer is because the Rudd Labor Government is convinced it will encourage concerned people that the internet will be a safer place for themselves and/or their children.

However, people with a deep abiding commitment to a truly open internet, the very idea of introducing a mandatory filter will always be an anathema, no matter the definitional limitations to what is being censored or how accountable/transparent that process is.

Unfortunately, the debate about whether reducing the risks of people being exposed to unwanted online content through mandatory filters outweighs the value people place on the concept of an open and unflitered internet was resolved by the Rudd government before the last election, when the policy was announced. So it is not surprising many people feel they have not had the opportunity to have this debate.

So where to next? With a policy announced and the tests done and the definition of what is to be filtered resolved there is little room to move.  Given the principle of openess associated with the internet is for some, irreconcilable with mandatory filtering no matter how it is done, one approach may be to allow ISPs, if they chose, to offer adults an ‘opt out’. The problem with this however will be that many people are unlikely to be comfortable with an opt-out given the inevitable stigma that will be attached to “wanting” access to RC content. It may also lead to interest by the authorities, even though individuals may simply want to ensure they are not having legitimate content filtered.

In many respects this will be the practical effect as it is assumed that the filters will be circumvented, with the defiant justification being defending this principal of openess anyway. However by creating a legitimate mechanism, the strongly held diverse views within our population would be respected while still adhering to the Rudd Labor election commitment of providing a mandatory filter.

My past statements clearly outline my preferred approach of more effective parental education and support, including filters at the desktop and improving confident use of the intenet throughs skills development across a range of community, education and work-based strategies.

So my plan is to advocate within my party an approach which recognises the openess principle that underpins the Internet as I have argued for in the past. This discussion is rightly an internal one, and I have no doubt that the public will be expressing their view as they have already started to do. In this regard I urge constructive and sensible debate. Remember that Minister Conroy is implementing an election commitment determined by the whole Cabinet.

I want to thank people for the respect they have shown me on this issue too, given my previous advocacy and obvious discomfort with the current approach. I am also firm in my belief that this debate does not diminish the exciting work we are doing with the NBN, in Gov 2.0 and other areas of ICT policy. I will always be committed to realising our ICT-related social and economic potential.

Finally, I want to be very clear that ultimately, as  a Senator in the Labor Government I will be bound by Labor Caucus’ position on the matter. I remain supportive of Minister Conroy and will work closely with him to reach the best possible outcome. I do believe that the intention of this policy remains noble – to protect our young and vulnerable. I am keenly aware that many mechanisms used by criminal networks will not be stopped through a filtering mechanism, and I believe the complementary strategies being put in place are good, such as increased funding for the AFP to tackle cybercrime and online safety education.

I will follow the online conversations closely as always and look forward to your feedback.

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