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 ZDNet.com.au 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.