news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has indicated the Government is having discussions with the telecommunications industry about the future of its controversial mandatory Internet filtering project, the future of which is currently hanging in the balance, following the delivery of a review of Australia’s classification system.
In mid-2010, facing an inability to get its filter legislation through Parliament due to the opposition of the Coalition and the Greens, the Government delayed the introduction of the filtering system, pending the delivery of a report reviewing Australia’s content classification system. At the time, Conroy acknowledged that “some sections of the community” had expressed concern about whether the range of material currently included in the Refused Classification category (which the mandatory filter system is slated to block) correctly reflected current community standards.
That report was handed down at the start of March this year. Although it recommended a slight watering down of the RC category rules and the renaming of the category ‘Prohibited’, it barely mentioned the filter. Since that time, Conroy has not substantially commented on the future of the filter, although in late February he appeared to attempt to conflate the mandatory filter with a similar, but much more limited filter which Telstra, Optus and one or two other ISPs have implemented.
That ‘voluntary’ filter only blocks a set of sites which international policing agency Interpol has verified contain “worst of the worst” child pornography — not the wider RC category of content.
Asked about the issue this morning, Conroy said he was “very interested” in the classification review report, and had been having discussions about the filter issue. He highlighted that he had previously pointed out that there had been a number of companies which had already introduced the voluntary Interpol-based filter; adding, however, that some ‘misreporting’ had clouded some of those comment.
The Government, said Conroy, welcomed the voluntary implementation of the Interpol filter, as “a very, very positive step”. “I would hope all companies would introduce that voluntarily.”
“We’re in a situation where we’re still having some discussions with the industry associations and I think we may come to a very positive outcome,” he added. Pressed on what that comment meant, Conroy said he “wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise”.
The news comes as Australia’s telecommunications industry has become increasingly cautious about commenting even on the Interpol filter issue.
Telstra, Optus and a smaller ISP, CyberOne, have acknowledged they have implemented the voluntary filter, although neither Telstra nor Optus will willingly publicly provide details on how the program is functioning. Vodafone said this month that it was working on implementing the technology and “committed to implementing the required technology this year”.
Other ISPs, such as iiNet and its subsidiaries (including Internode, Netspace, TransACT and more) have engaged with the Australian Federal Police, which is administering the scheme. However, they (as well as smaller ISP Exetel) have signalled that they are not planning to implement the filtering scheme unless required to do so by law.
A number of other ISPs — including Dodo, Primus, Adam Internet and TPG — will not comment on whether or not they have implemented the voluntary filtering scheme, leaving their customers in the dark as to whether their Internet connections are subject to filtering or not.
Conroy’s manner this morning appeared to suggest (to my mind) that Labor’s mandatory ISP filter policy will be gradually morphed into official government support for the voluntary Interpol filter at some point over the next few months. At this stage, I expect that the mandatory version of the filter, which would block the RC category of content, is basically dead, and its successor will be the Interpol filter. 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.”
Conroy is clearly hatching something to do with the filter’s future right now. It will be interesting to see what happens when that surfaces. Ideally, Labor would abandon 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. I guess we can only wait and see.