analysis Two and a half years ago, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced a significant delay to Labor’s controversial mandatory Internet filter project, pending a review into the Refused Classification category of content which the filter was to block. The results of that review were published yesterday and contain very little guidance for the Minister. What will Conroy do now?
The last time Conroy made a substantial decision about Labor’s controversial Internet filtering project, in July 2010, the initiative was under fire on all sides and looked in danger of going down in flames.
As the man charged with selling the filter to the electorate and thus the most public face of the policy, which had been steadily sinking since Kevin Rudd’s Labor took power in late 2007, Captain Conroy had personally gone to great lengths to keep it afloat. The Minister had personally braved ten thousand questions on the matter from a press irritated by the censorship questions the project raised. He had worked closely with technicians testing the filtering technology and suffered demonstrations of how it could (easily) be circumvented.
Conroy had patiently explained the filter to a bevy of dubious talk show hosts, month after month. He had sat through meetings behind closed doors with Internet service providers upset at being turned into modern day content gatekeepers. He had even debated the issue with fellow Labor colleagues. Verily, he suffered the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune which had dumped the policy in his lap — and he took arms against the sea of troubles it engendered.
But he did not end them.
By the time mid-2010 rolled around, the filter policy which had started life so innocuously — as a largely overlooked minor policy outlined during the 2007 election and apparently designed to placate some of the more conservative members of the electorate — had become a millstone around Labor’s neck and a calamity for Conroy.
The filter’s immense unpopularity with the perennially insolent Australian electorate; its technical ineptitude; its association with draconian censorship and the religious Right; and the efforts of a handful of determined network engineers and Internet libertarians — damned in the Senate but not cowed — all these had combined to finally convince the Greens and the Coalition (with beaming Joe Hockey eager to be the bearer of the proud news) that the filter was a problem and should be voted down.
The result was the unexpected announcement by Conroy — on a wintry Melbourne morning in mid-July — that the implementation of the filter would be delayed while legal experts undertook a review of the Refused Classification category of content which the filter would block, and the Government put in place wider consumer protections to shield Australians from the worst possibilities engendered by the policy. Australia’s legal experts would poke and prod the most extreme Internet content, it was implied, and work out how much was suitable for Australian consumption and how much was not.
It seemed all fine and dandy at the time. The filter was effectively dead; Conroy’s RC review a graceful way of backing out of the failed policy before the Coalition could bear it into the upcoming Federal Election just months later and whip proud Labor with it.
But here’s the rub; the filter did not die.
For the past several years since the filter was delayed, Conroy has been regularly questioned on the issue of whether the filter remains current Labor policy. And he has consistently replied that it does. “You don’t, simply because you’ve got a lot of criticism, say ‘well I’m going to run away from that policy’,” said Conroy on national television in September 2010. In November that year, newly elected Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the filter issue as a “moral question”. That same month, the filter got a new date — mid-2013.
In February 2011, the issue popped up again in Senate Estimates, and then again in May that same year, when Conroy said he trusted the public’s “common sense” on the matter of the filter. In July it emerged that the Australian Communications and Media Authority revealed it was building a new child abuse blacklist to test a voluntary and severely limited filter being implemented by some ISPs.
And the issue would continue to come up regularly throughout the second half of 2011, as that lesser filter was implemented and the nation kept an eye on the results. Throughout that period, Conroy has not needed to form a permanent resolution for the future of the unsightly project which he — and many others in the Australian Labor Party — would so dearly need to leave behind. The Refused Classification Review being carried out by the Australian Law Reform Commission was under still under way, and Government policy would await the result of that lengthy process.
Yesterday, however, the game changed.
Yesterday afternoon — in a move reminiscent of the quiet thump of packed snow sliding off a slanted roof — the law’s delay came home to roost. The ALRC dumped the filter project back in Conroy’s lap with the filing of its Refused Classification report. It is now the Minister’s problem once again.
If you read the report — which I did this afternoon, in its 404 page entirety (a fortuitous number in Internet circles) — you will find little mention of the filter. The report largely concerns matters tangential to the filter, such as the creation of a new regulator to maintain Australia’s censorship laws across various technologies. It mentions that Internet service providers, among other organisations, should have “obligations” to aid in classifying or restricting inappropriate online content, but it does not precisely spell out what that means for content hosted outside Australia, which has always been the problem for the filter.
The review recommends that the ‘Refused Classification’ category of content should be renamed to ‘Prohibited’. After closely examining Australia’s interest in mild sexual fetishes and drug use being portrayed in films (in which it considers the weighty matter of to what extent BDSM clubs are a part of mainstream society), it recommends a slight watering down of the RC category.
Crucially, it discusses the Government’s mandatory Internet filtering policy in brief (but wait, wasn’t that the whole point of this review?) but does not make a concrete recommendation regarding it. In an age where the Internet is rapidly becoming the preeminent medium for acquiring and consuming content (perhaps, in a decade or so, virtually the only medium), the ALRC’s Classification Review seems much more concerned with items sold in physical mediums — books, DVDs, films shown in cinemas. Mediums which are much more controllable than the Internet.
I’m sure the authors of the review deliberately took this approach; it is not the ALRC’s role to set policy, only to make recommendations to inform it — and I have rarely seen a bureaucratic review of this nature attempt to squarely examine a controversial political policy like the filter. That Conroy’s wide-ranging classification review would make little comment on the filter policy is not unexpected.
But it does present the Minister with a problem: What to do next?
In recent weeks Conroy has appeared to try and back away from his previous commitment to Labor’s mandatory ISP filter project, instead answering questions on the matter by highlighting the strengths which the rival voluntary Interpol filter implemented by Telstra and Optus (but still panned by much of the rest of the industry) possesses. Given all of the problems that the filter has been heir to, it is not hard to believe that Conroy’s — and Labor’s — resolution to implement the filter has become sicklied with the pale cast of reality.
It’s not hard to imagine that Conroy’s years of grunting and sweating to push the weary filter policy uphill are close to being over — that Labor will abandon its comprehensive mandatory filter for the much more limited voluntary filter which has already been implemented by much of the industry. In the days after the thousand shocks which have hit Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership over the past several weeks, this would make a great deal of sense for all concerned; and it’s almost a universal win. The conservative parts of society get a win — the worst child abuse materials blocked from most of the Internet. The libertarians get a win — avoiding an onerous censorship with the potential for scope creep. And Labor gets, if not a win, then the chance to exit from the heartache of a bad policy dream which has plagued it since 2007.
But if this is the case — if the filter has indeed shuffled off this mortal coil — then the Australian public deserves to know and to have confidence that the policy has been put to bed for sure. It will also give Conroy a chance to have his tenure as Communications Minister remembered for the implementation of other, more popular and positive policies such as the National Broadband Network. Because as long as the filter policy still remains official Labor policy, it is in its tenets that all of Conroy’s sins will be remembered.