news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been forced to issue an embarassing retraction regarding the publication of a new online child safety policy late yesterday afternoon, which had initially stated that the Coalition was planning to resurrect Labor’s failed mandatory Internet filtering scheme.
The policy document, published with no associated media release or campaign launch late yesterday afternoon on the Coalition’s campaign website, included the promise that a Coalition Government would enact a policy which would “involve mobile phone operators installing adult content filters on phones which will be switched on as the default unless the customer proves he or she is at least 18 years of age; and involve major internet service providers providing home network filters for all new home broadband services, which will be switched on as the default unless the customer specifies otherwise.”
Such a system, the Coalition policy document stated, would be similar to a similar approach recently enacted in the United Kingdom. The document further stated: “The Coalition intends to further extend its approach of offering choice to parents and consumers, but equipping parents with the tools to protect children. That is why we will introduce nationally agreed default safety standards for smartphones and other devices, and internet access services.”
The original PDF document is available here, while the revised document has also been posted on the Liberal Party’s website.
The launch of the policy, just 36 hours before the Federal Election on Saturday, almost precisely mimicked the way Labor introduced its own, highly controversial Internet filter in November 2007. At the time, Labor also included its filter policy as a small item of its broader policy agenda shortly before the election, including the filter promise without fanfare.
Labor’s filter was finally dumped for good in November last year, after both the Coalition and the Greens had promised for years to reject any attempt to introduce supporting legislation for the policy. It would have seen Australian ISPs forced to block a list of websites containing content not able to be classified in Australia under existing classification laws.
In November last year, then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy formally dumped the policy in favour of a much more limited Internet filtering scheme which is seeing major ISPs such as Telstra and Optus filter a list of ‘worst of the worst’ child pornography sites supplied by international policing agency Interpol. However, at least one ISP, iiNet, has refused to implement the scheme.
It is believed that the online safety policy released yesterday was developed by Liberal MP Paul Fletcher, a former telecommunications executive with Optus who has assisted Turnbull with communications portfolio work. However, it is believed that Turnbull’s office did not see the policy released yesterday before it was released. It is not currently clear how the Internet filter aspect was included in the document.
In a statement late yesterday, Turnbull made it clear the botched policy did not represent the Coalition’s position.
“The Coalition has never supported mandatory internet filtering. Indeed, we have a long record of opposing it,” the Member for Wentworth wrote. “The policy which was issued today by was poorly worded and incorrectly indicated that the Coalition supported an “opt out” system of internet filtering for both mobile and fixed line services. That is not our policy and never has been.”
“The correct position is that the Coalition will encourage mobile phone and internet service providers to make available software which parents can choose to install on their own devices to protect their children from inappropriate material. The policy posted online today on the [campaign HQ] website has been replaced with the correct version.”
However, earlier yesterday afternoon Turnbull supported the policy on Triple J’s Hack program, and Fletcher himself conducted an interview with ZDNet supporting the policy.
“What we intend to do is work with the industry to arrive at an arrangement where the default is that there is a filter in the home device, the home network, that is very similar to the filters that are available today … The key thing is it is an opt-out, so it will be open to the customer to call up and say, ‘look, I don’t want this’, and indeed, we will work with the industry to make this a streamlined and efficient process,” Fletcher told the site.
The Coalition’s release of the document attracted immediate outrage from other political parties and digital rights organisations, many of which had spent a substantial amount of effort getting Labor’s previous fiter policy rejected.
“Why so late?”, ask Australian Privacy Foundation Vice-Chair, David Vaile, in a statement distributed yesterday. “It’s almost as if the Liberal Party has something to hide, isn’t it? It’s so late that, already, up to 1 million people have already committed their vote, without being aware that the Liberal Party may now try to claim a mandate for a filter”.
Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam also attacked the Coalition’s move. “Tony Abbott has actually proposed that anyone who wants to access uncensored online content will have to put themselves on a Government watch list by opting out of the filter,” said Ludlam in a statement.
“This idea is co-mingled with a large volume of unpopular policy garbage that the presumptive Prime Minister is offloading in the 40-odd hours before the election. It is indicative of the kind of Government we can expect to be subjected to onSeptember 8. The Greens worked with the online community to defeat the Rudd filter – now Abbott has given us a taste of the contempt with which he intends to treat the entire adult population of Australia.”
“More than ever, we’re going to need a strong Greens presence in the Senate to fight misconceived brain-snaps like this one,” Ludlam said.
iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby told iTNews that the Coalition’s policy was a “ridiculous thought bubble”. “Stephen Conroy will be laughing his block off,” he said.
Opinion/analysis to follow separately.