Conroy misleads public on Internet filter


news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy today appeared to consciously tell a factual inaccuracy with respect to the current implementation status of Labor’s controversial Internet filtering project, stating that Telstra and Optus had implemented the mandatory filtering system, when they have only implemented a drastically reduced voluntary version.

In a press conference this afternoon with Prime Minister Julia Gillard televised live nationally, Conroy was asked whether he was still philosophically committed to the Internet filter project, and whether it would be implemented during the current term of government, or the next. The full transcript is available online here.

“Well, two companies, in fact three companies have already introduced it,” he said. “It may come as a great surprise to you that the internet hasn’t slowed down or collapsed. Telstra and Optus and a small – apologies to the third company – have introduced the filter.”

However, as Conroy is aware, no Australian Internet service provider has implemented the Internet filtering system which remains the current policy of the Federal Government.

Labor’s filter policy, if implemented, would see all of Australia’s ISPs forced to block a blacklist of Internet sites compiled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority from being accessed by their customers. That blacklist would consist of sites which have been ‘Refused Classification’ in Australia — that is, their content is too extreme to be classified under Australian classification guidelines, which range from the G category suitable for general consumption to the X classification which usually contains legal pornography.

Following widespread public condemnation of the filter policy and statements by the Coalition and the Greens that they would not support the policy, making it impossible for the Labor Government to push association legislation through the Federal Parliament to enact the policy, in July 2010 Conroy announced that the project would be delayed while the Government (in the form of the Australian Law Reform Commission) carried out a review of the Refused Classification category. That review is believed to have been completed, with a report slated to be in the Government’s hands shortly.

It is true that Telstra and Optus have implemented an Internet filter of sorts. In July 2011, the pair, and a smaller ISP, CyberOne, implemented a very limited filtering system which blocks a dramatically smaller number of sites than Labor’s much wider filter. However, those sites purely relate to known “worst of the worst” child pornography sites which have been placed on a blacklist of sites distributed by international policing agency Interpol. The voluntary system has been put in place with the assistance of the Australian Federal Police.

It is not clear how many sites are on the Interpol blacklist, however it is believed that the number would only be a few hundred to less than a thousand. In comparison, ACMA confirmed in March 2009 that its list contained some 1,370 sites. In addition, what appeared to be a separate version of the list at the time contained some 2,395 sites. Conroy pledged in May 2010 to review the list if it reached 10,000 sites, and the Minister has speculated the filtering technology could support a blacklist of 50,000 sites.

In short, although Conroy appeared to conflate the two, the Internet filtering system implemented by Telstra, Optus and CyberOne is radically different to the Government policy the Minister was questioned about by a journalist today.

In the press conference today, Conroy stated that Telstra, Optus and CyberOne were “testing” their filtering systems against the Interpol list. In addition, he noted that the Government had seen announcements “by a whole range of other companies that they’re going to introduce it themselves voluntarily”. “We welcome this, we think this is a fantastic step forward. I’ve been calling on the sector to stand up and move forward, I think I’ve only seen now one company that has indicated it may not introduce voluntarily the filter,” he said.

“So we welcome – well, we’re still going through the review at the moment, but I’m very, very excited that the industry has stepped forward. And at this stage I’m only aware of one company that said it won’t, and there are discussions taking place with them. And if we were to achieve an outcome where everyone actually introduces it themselves, well then that is the best possible outcome.”

It is true that one other company — Vodafone — has committed to implementing the Interpol version of the filter. And other ISPs are discussing the filter issue with the Australian Federal Police, meaning more may join the voluntary filter program in future.

However, in his statement, Conroy appeared to conflate the Interpol version of the filter with the much more comprehensive mandatory filter, which uses the ACMA blacklist. A number of major ISPs, such as iiNet, have plainly stated that they have no intention of implementing the Government’s wider mandatory filter unless they are forced to through legislation. “The proposed filter is fundamentally flawed, will not achieve its stated purpose and simply will not work,” said iiNet CEO Michael Malone in May 2010 (PDF). “It is fundamentally bad policy. We do not and never have supported such a system.”

These comments largely echoed similar sentiments in 2008 expressed by Justin Milne, then the group managing director for Telstra’s BigPond division. “The idea that ISPs could somehow or other filter the Internet is one, technically impossible and two, a bad idea anyway,” he told at the time. “If you want to filter the bad guys out of the ‘net, quite apart from the fact that technically you can’t do it, you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation, to make that properly carried out, to make it stand up.”

iiNet has engaged with the AFP over the Interpol filter, but it is believed that the ISP’s stance on the issue is that it will not implement the voluntary system unless required to do so by law. And other ISPs have taken an even more extreme stance opposing the filter, with both Exetel and TPG stating in July 2011 that they had no intention of implementing the voluntary Interpol filter. Primus, which had initially supported the voluntary filter alongside Telstra and Optus, is believed to have backed away from the proposal.

This lack of support from the industry means that Conroy’s statement today that there was only one ISP which had indicated that it would not implement the voluntary filter was factually inaccurate. In fact, since the voluntary filtering scheme was proposed in early 2011, the majority of Australia’s ISPs have maintained their distance from the proposal, some violently so.

Conroy’s comments today have already resulted in incorrect media reports on the issue.

“Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says Telstra and Optus are already using the government’s controversial internet content filter with more internet service providers (ISPs) tipped to get on board,” reported an article which appeared to have been written by AAP and published by Ninemsn today. The article was also published by technical publication Computerworld.

Today’s press conference is the second time this month that Conroy appears to have misled the public about the current status of the Government’s mandatory Internet filter policy. On 14 February , Conroy was similarly asked by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie in a Senate Estimates session whether the Government was still committed to the Internet filtering scheme. The full Hansard transcript is available online here (PDF).

“The good news is that two of the major ISPs in this country have actually introduced it,” Conroy replied.

In follow-up comments, Conroy then did make it clear that the implementation he was referring to was the Interpol filter that Telstra, Optus and CyberOne have implementated. “For over six months now, three ISPs, including Telstra and Optus, have been blocking a list of child abuse material compiled by Interpol based on referrals from law enforcement agencies from around the world,” he said.

However, Conroy’s initial statement implying that the three ISPs had implemented the Government’s wider mandatory filter was inaccurate. The Minister is aware that the ISPs have only implemented the much more limited Interpol filter.

In the same Senate Estimates session, Conroy also appeared to back down from a strict commitment to implement the wider filter. “We welcome this commitment by Australia’s ISPs to step up and block the Interpol list. We will examine the report of the ALRC, but we remain committed to ensuring that Australians remain in a position where they are not subject to child abuse material,” he said.

Pressed on the matter of introducing legislation by McKenzie, Conroy stated that the Government would wait to speak about the matter until the ALRC’s Refused Classification report was published. “We will be considering the report, and will see where that leads us … So we are awaiting the final report,” he said. The delivery of the report was “imminent”, Abdul Rizvi, a senior bureaucrat from Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, told the Estimates committee.

It seems clear that Conroy appears to be attempting to publicly conflate the voluntary Interpol filter with the Government’s much wider mandatory Internet filtering project.

The reasons for this are obvious. The mandatory Internet filter project has always been one of the most controversial and unpopular policies proposed by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments, and the Government does not have, and is not likely to be able to obtain, enough parliamentary support to push the legislation it requires through.

However, it would be politically unsightly for Conroy or Labor in general to publicly back down from supporting the filter at this point. The Government has pushed so long and so hard on this policy that it would be embarrassing to do so, and that sort of publicity is the sort that the Government can ill afford, especially after the events of the past several weeks with the Rudd/Gillard leadership tussle.

So what we get are these inaccuracies, half-truths and veiled implications from Conroy, which are attempting to shift the Government’s policy position to one of supporting the voluntary Interpol filter, which has received a lukewarm reception from the ISP industry, but which still meets many of the Government’s policy goals regarding objectionable Internet content.

This, as I’ve previous opined, isn’t a bad thing. Most Australians are fairly comfortable with the idea that their Internet could be filtered for child pornography. They just don’t want it filtered for other things, and they don’t want the Government to maintain a secret blacklist of banned sites.

However, this doesn’t mean the current voluntary filter has been implemented correctly. As I’ve also previously written, there are many disturbing issues regarding the Interpol filter which have not been addressed. In July 2011, I wrote the following about the Interpol filter:

“We are talking about a filtering scheme here which is being implemented behind closed doors, with little notification to customers, with no civilian oversight, an unclear legal framework, the potential for scope creep and a limited and secretive appeals process overseen by the agency which drew up the list to start with.”

What Conroy and the Federal Government needs to do right now is come clean on its intentions for the mandatory Internet filtering policy and the voluntary Interpol filter, preferably by abandoning the failed mandatory Internet filter and applying the same consumer protections to the voluntary Interpol filter which the Minister promised to apply to the mandatory filter. Oh — and the Minister should stop telling factual inaccuracies in public.

Image credit: Kim Davies, Creative Commons


  1. Clear unintentional of Conroy, he’s still angry that Arbib got his face back and was distracted.

      • Expect it to come back once we are locked in with a single physical network (NBN) and competitive network have been shut down and new ones not allowed to be built. By then, it will not even require legislation, just a ministerial direction to the government entity, NBN Co.

        • The government isn’t actually blocking other companies from creating their own wholesale network, they are simply stating that any company that wishes to create it’s own competing wholesale network that is to compete against NBNCo MUST follow the same open access policies that NBNCo has to follow.

          Which means available for all RSPs at the same rates, etc…

          Please don’t chinese whisper bad things like that.

  2. the question was: “…are you still philosophically committed to the internet filter”?

    why does “the internet filter” have to refer to the particular version of the filter you’d like it to refer to .
    Why can’t it refer to “the filter” that Optus, Telstra, VF (and shortly iiNet) have implemented.

    “Philosophically committed” also tends to suggest a reference to a non-specific version of an internet filter – that is, an ISP filter in one form or another, rather than the specific version you’re conveniently assuming the journalist was referring to.

    It’s a pretty weak basis upon which to prepare a baseless tabloid style piece of prose, let alone to leverage your efforts to carelessly fling around allegations of deliberate mistruths. Isn’t it?

      • I would interpret Conroy’s statements as meaning that the Interpol filter is a sufficient implementation of his policy.

        • Sorry, in that case, you would be completely incorrrect – hansard clearly states that Conroy’s comment refers to the proposed mandatory internet filter. Conroy was either ridiculously incompetent, unbelievably stupid or telling a deliberate untruth. You decide :)

  3. So Telstra, Optus and CyberOne have implemented a ‘blacklist’ filter. But it currently blocks fewer sites than the government has proposed. Big deal — unless you have some evidence that the current filters are incapable of scaling to the increased number of sites.

    No, I didn’t think so.

    This seems like an awful lot of words to expend on a non-story, founded on a fine distinction that only true geeks could appreciate. How about going out and finding some real news?

    • Actually, it is a big deal. And it’s not a fine distinction. Filtering thousands of sites in a range of categories, compared to filtering a much smaller number of sites which contain the worst of child pornography is a sizable objective difference.

      And that’s why the public objects strongly to the one but not to the other ;)

      • More than that, Renai. Having the list controlled by Interpol and having the list controlled by the Australian government are two very, very different things. I do not trust the government (either flavour) to control the list. I would rather lose out on the NBN than have a government controlled filter.

        • Tack me to the above sentiment, hence why I didn’t vote Labor in the 2010 election.

          All well and good to have a nice and fast web con but if I can’t use it to it’s full potential then I’d rather go without.

    • The Interpol filter is a DNS filter. The proposed mandatory ISP filter is a black/white URL list filter and they are mutually exclusive. It follows that the voluntary filter can’t be scaled to include the Australian definition of Refused Classification material.

      You might also like to note that the Interpol definition of “child abuse material” and the Australian Refused Classification definition of “child abuse material” are totally different. eg the Australian definition currently includes material where actors or actresses look to be under 18 years of age regardless of their real verifiable age.

      As Renai has said it is a big deal.

    • Blocks fewer sites, on a different list, administered by a different body, compiled for a different purpose, subject to a different oversight body, with a different scope, for different reasons, with different ramifications for non-compliance, under a different regulatory scheme, with a different technical implementation that seeks to filter for a different reason.

      Other than that though, it’s identical.

      • but it’s an “internet filter” right? An “internet filter” of the kind (ie an ISP level filter) that certain lobby groups attempted to convince everyone that democracry would crumble because of.

        Who knows which (if any) version of the filter the journalist was referring to anyway – let alone what Conroy interpreted the question to mean.Hasn’t he only said what everyone knows anyway which is most Australian internet connections are subject to ISP level filtering and nothing bad has happened as a result of that?

        • It’s not comparable. My phrasing might have been jovial but the point behind it remains, the mandatory censorship system that was Labor policy (or about three policies) from just before the 07 election until probably late 2010, is in no way similar to what has been implemented by those ISPs.

          What was ALP policy, and what Conroy has ALWAYS talked about when discussing the “filter”, was a “pass by” blocking system which would inject TCP resets into sessions to “break” attempts to access what was on the fairly lengthy (and growing) Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist, which is an FOI exempt list of various legal, illegal, offensive and inoffensive content deemed unfit for Australian consumption. This was to apply at every ISP in Australia.

          What’s been implemented is a voluntary system by a handful of telcos that does DNS filtering of an incredibly small blacklist administered by Interpol, which is not a mixed bag but rather literally the most illegal and horrifying content on the Internet.

          There’ll still be people unimpressed, but it’s mandatory versus optional, simple versus intricately complex, run by a recognised international body versus run by an Australian regulatory joke. Conroy is pointing to something reasonably uncontroversial and declaring it a successful implementation of something completely different that there was massive public outcry over. It’s like announcing the death penalty for shoplifting and then implementing jail time for murder.

          • Yes, yes. The filters are different, I don’t think anyone denies that. But I think it’s unfair to assume that Conroy has, on this occasion, misled by deliberately conflating the two filter types. A reasonable person need only look at the transcript and the exact question asked to realise that.

          • I hate to defend Conroy here but I have to agree with Billy. The transcript says..

            MINISTER CONROY: Well, two companies, in fact three companies have already introduced it. It may come as a great surprise to you that the internet hasn’t slowed down or collapsed. Telstra and Optus and a small – apologies to the third company – have introduced the filter.

            They’re testing it against the Interpol list, and overwhelmingly Australians have not noticed any difference, any difference whatsoever. We’ve seen announcements by a whole range of other companies that they’re going to introduce it themselves voluntarily. We welcome this, we think this is a fantastic step forward. I’ve been calling on the sector to stand up and move forward, I think I’ve only seen now one company that has indicated it may not introduce voluntarily the filter.

            The bulk of this article is concentrating on the first paragraph of that transcript and not the second. And really it comes down to “the” vs “a” anyway, so if Conroy had of said “Telstra and Optus and a small – apologies to the third company – have introduced a filter.” then this article would never have been.

            Sorry Renai, but this is being a bit nit picky.

          • Conroy was also incorrect there. As some commenters on this article have noted, the mandatory filtering technology is completely different from the DNS-based filter which Telstra and Optus are using for the Interpol list. Telstra and Optus are not testing the technology against the Interpol list.

          • A journalist asked about “the internet filter”. Conroy responded, discussing “the filter”.

            You have chosen to interpret “the filter” as meaning a specific greylisting technology, and used that to portray Conroy as lying, but it is no less valid to think of “the filter” at a technology-agnostic policy level. After all, no legislation has been passed that mandates a specific filtering product.

          • I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. The journalist asked about the Government’s mandatory Internet filtering policy, and Conroy replied speaking about the voluntary Interpol filter (which he has nothing to do with implementing). It was evasion — and it truly is as simple as that.

          • You’re wrong Renai. Presumably you linked through to the transcript because you’ve read it.

            If you haven’t, I understand; you’re a small business owner, you’re busy and you’ve got headlines to concoct.

            If you have read it, you’ll see that the journalist refers to “the filter”. Not necessarily the filter policy of five years ago, of one year ago or of the filter that ISPs have implemented now. You’ve chosen the particular meaning you want to attach to the journalist’s question, and Conroy’s answer to it, for your own purposes. It’s as simple as that.

          • This is what was actually said:

            JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, notwithstanding that you’re waiting for the review, are you still philosophically committed to the internet filter, and is that something you’ll introduce this term or next term?

            MINISTER CONROY: Well, two companies, in fact three companies have already introduced it. It may come as a great surprise to you that the internet hasn’t slowed down or collapsed. Telstra and Optus and a small – apologies to the third company – have introduced the filter.

            […] And if we were to achieve an outcome where everyone actually introduces it themselves, well then that is the best possible outcome.

            So either Conroy has drastically changed his policy, and not told anybody, or he’s lying about what Telstra and Optus have implemented (because they haven’t implemented the internet filter, they’ve implement an internet filter — much watered down from the filter that was proposed by Conroy).

          • Conroy saying “It may come as a great surprise to you that the internet hasn’t slowed down or collapsed” is deliberately conflating the two types of filters.

            He’ll use this to try and argue that ISP filtering doesn’t have an effect on speeds and while we will know he’s full of it, the general public is likely to fall for it.

            He’s not lying but he is being misleading as usual on this issue.

    • >unless you have some evidence that …

      That evidence exists. Read, for example, Telstra’s report on their own trial of internet censorship.

    • Oh it blocks fewer sites does it? Your evidence for this would be? Ah yes, Interpol, the feds and the isps who apparently are entitled because of their profession to have knowledge of the ‘worst of the worst’ sites…

  4. Must also remember that the Interpol filter system is site based and would typically be implemented by DNS poisoning which has little performance issues. But the URL Mandatory Filter that Conroy has been pushing cannot be implemented by using simple/only DNS poisoning and requires a dynamic inspection of the full URL in order to perform filtering.

    Thus Interpol has little performance issues and the Mandatory Filter has performance issues and increasing so as the list increases. To compare the 2 is comparing a printed page to a dynamic database.

  5. I don’t trust any politicians that has anything to do with the internet you never know which way they will spin.

  6. I’d accept filtering by ISPs, only if it were approved by a two thirds majority in a national plebiscite and included similar inspection and censorship of all mail by Australia Post. The principle is identical – only the technology is different. If politicians were men of principle, we wouldn’t have this problem.
    Anyway, would you buy a used car from Conroy?

    • The principle might be similar but you can’t get a world of porn (for instance) in an envelope. /// I watched that press conference, PM Gillard did run a pretty tight ship question wise but the journo’s still don’t appear to be on top of this as much as you might hope.There should have been a follow up question re the filter. I thought Conroy was getting the p*ss taken out of him for going into some detail otherwise. Btw Mr LeMay can you please follow up M.Turnballs’ comment regarding separating Telstra and its copper in his plan,the article is in the Oz,if you don’t know already.

      • “The principle might be similar but you can’t get a world of porn (for instance) in an envelope”
        I bet that’s news to all the people who get deliveries from Fyshwick ;)

      • It’s not necessary to get a “world of porn” into an envelope. A couple of dozen photographs, an obscene letter, or a loaded USB drive can be quite evil.
        I wouldn’t denigrate the value of principles, either. When we dump principle, what is left?

        • The only thing I was doing was taking a shot at your analogy. Snail mail vs the web.

  7. Personally, if this is Conroy/Labor’s way of moving on from their full on un-implementable filter, then I don’t really care if he tells a few fibs to save face.

    In an ideal world I’d like my politicians to openly state that something was a bad idea and as they’ve learned more about what they were proposing it became obvious is wasn’t either sensible or feasible, and that they’ll accept that and change their policy.

    I’d also like world peace, an end to poverty and a pony. In the meantime I’ll settle for good outcomes however they’re arrived at.

    • Point, but Conroy has done enough that he doesn’t need to save face. Inability to concede the filter isn’t as desirable as first thought hurts his ability to achieve in the future.

  8. Excellent article, Renai !!

    Conroy is the sort of politician who is scum even among politicians. You could say that he is “the worst of the worst”.

    He is a serial liar and it’s good that someone in the media has called him out on yet another attempt to deceive the public.

  9. Notice that one thing that Conroy didn’t say is that internet censorship is actually succeeding in its goal.

    Unless you count “Australians haven’t noticed any difference whatsoever” as a tacit admission that internet censorship doesn’t work.

    • we didnt notice a difference because it didnt work? ie we can still access whatever we want.
      oh wait, i forgot, competent people installed it, at an incompetents whim

  10. What is even more interesting is if you follow the Media appearances of Conroy over the last 3 days. Monday he was slagging Rudd. Tuesday it was reported here the Conroy lurks on Whirlpool. Wednesday we get Conroy misleading the Media in a manner certain to infuriate Whirlpool forums. If you look at it in the right light it could be seen as a ham fisted attempt to troll forums so that the topic of Mondays vote is buried by something, anything, as quickly as possible?

  11. A conscious factual inaccuracy is a LIE. No more. No less.

    Why, oh why does this bloody government keep doing this?

  12. I think the parliament house filter filters out something like 3 million websites.

  13. Rene, your headline for this could really have been used for every proclamation big Steve has made regarding his filter for the last three years…

    If anyone can provide a quote from him that doesn’t mislead the public re this matter I will consider donating a shiny, spanking new dollar to the ACL… and I don’t risk my money easily…

Comments are closed.