news The Opposition has formed a new working group to deal with the issue of online safety for Australian children, stating that its rival policy will avoid the “ham-fisted” “cyber-censorship” mandatory Internet filtering approach that remains Labor Federal Government policy for dealing with the issue of how children are protected from Internet nasties.
Labor’s highly controversial Internet filter policy was introduced before the 2007 election and would have seen Australian ISPs forced to block a blacklist of sites containing illegal content as defined by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. However, it has not been implemented yet, due to a high degree of public opposition to the proposal that has seen both the Coalition and Greens oppose it, meaning Labor is unlikely to have enough parliamentary support to push through necessary legislation for the policy.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbot issued a statement last week noting that in a relatively short period of time, the Internet has transformed the lives of Australians. “However, there are also risks, and children are particular vulnerable,” Abbott said. “These risks include children being exposed to illegal or inappropriate content and the increasing use of social media as a forum for online bullying.”
“Today’s online environment,” Abbot added, “extends well beyond accessing websites and email through the family desktop computer. It also includes a range of interactive activities like social networking sites, SMS messaging, Skype, apps and games. It is also becoming far more accessible with children and young people connecting with each other through computers (in homes, schools and libraries), game consoles and mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers.”
Abbott said the Coalition would not seek to repeat “Labor’s ham-fisted attempt to put a filter on the internet” or to “hinder the dynamic nature of the online environment”. “This is about protecting cyber-privacy. It’s not about trying to enforce cyber-censorship,” he added. And separately, at a press conference last week: “… this is not about censorship of the internet. I don’t believe in internet censorship, never have and never will. This is about online protections, not about online censorship.”
However, the Liberal Leader added, the Coalition did want to assist and equip parents and teachers in their work protecting children and preparing them for adulthood.
To this end, he said, said the Coalition would set up a working group to tackle the issue, with the aim of reporting back to him by mid-2012 on how the issue could be tackled. The group will be chaired by Liberal MP Paul Fletcher, who is one of the Opposition’s chief parliamentarians interested in telecommunications, with a background as a senior Optus executive.
Also joining Fletcher in the group will be Senator Gary Humphries, MP Alex Hawke, MP Natasha Griggs, MP Wyatt Roy, MP Patrick Secker, Senator Stephen Parry, Senator Bridget McKenzie and MP Luke Simpkins. Hawke is notable for regularly commenting on matters in the technology portfolio, while Roy is the Federal Parliament’s youngest member, at the age of 21.
Abbott noted that the working group would also work closely with shadow ministers with portfolio responsibility for online safety — “particularly the shadow ministers for education and communications” (Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne). A series of roundtables and community forums will be held across Australia as well as online over the coming months to take feedback on the issue.
At a press conference last week, Abbott took a question on the extent to which Internet service providers — which have largely remained opposed to the Internet filter project — would be involved in the consultation. “Look, certainly we welcome the input from the sector and yes, internet service providers are a very important part of the sector,” Abbott said. “We welcome their input. As I said though, our focus is going to be on hearing from parents, teachers and other carers, what tools do they need, do they think they need to keep our kids safe.”
However, Abbott also noted that one of the “real problems”, “one of the very hard problems” to deal with, is what could be done about web sites based overseas, “which contain offensive and defamatory material”. It is this problem which the Government’s Internet filter policy has been aimed at resolving.
It seems very much like someone — likely Paul Fletcher — has gotten to Abbott and convinced him that the Coalition needs to take a proactive stance on this issue, as it is an obvious area where Coalition policy can be demonstrated to be more desirable than Labor policy, given the unpopularity of the Internet filter policy.
In addition, by investigating the issue, Abbott can be seen to be actively doing something about it — which should do much to placate some of the more conservative elements of society, which have been demanding action on the issue from both parties for years.
Now, I won’t say that I am completely confident of the Coalition’s stance on protecting children online, as we have yet to see what the working group will recommend, come the delivery of its report in mid-2012. However, I have to say that early indications are positive. For once, Abbott and his team appear to understand what they are dealing with when it comes to technology, and I am expecting good things to come out of this initiative.
Certainly, anything that the Coalition proposes couldn’t possibly be a worse policy than Labor’s Internet filter, which still remains on the books.