Turnbull links data retention with Conroy’s filter


news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has likened the Federal Government’s controversial data retention and surveillance plan to the mandatory Internet filtering project which remains official policy of the Federal Government, despite the fact that Labor’s attempt to introduce it several years ago was met with near-universal political and popular opposition.

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.

In a speech given in Melbourne this week on Internet freedom, Turnbull likened Labor’s development of the filter policy to the current package of data retention and surveillance reforms being promulgated by the Federal Attorney-General’s Department. The package would see a number of wide-ranging changes made to make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor what Australians are doing on the Internet. For example, one new power is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs to retain data on their customers’ Internet and telephone activities for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites.

However, like the filter, the package has attracted near universal opposition from the Australian population, with hundreds of organisations and individuals heavily criticising the plan in submissions to a parliamentary committee examining it.

“This data retention proposal is only the latest effort by the Gillard Government to restrain freedom of speech,” Turnbull said this week.

“They started in 2007 with a commitment to a mandatory national Internet filter: the so-called ‘clean feed. The plan required ISPs to block access to a Government-determined blacklist of websites. The list itself would be kept secret to protect us all. The policy was claimed to be directed at eliminating online child pornography and there is no debate about the need to protect children from inappropriate material and indeed to protect them from child molesters who recruit and groom their victims online.”

“But the proposal, which remains Labor policy, was a thoroughly bad idea,” Turnbull said, as he expressed “grave misgivings” about the data retention project.

The Liberal MP said that not only would Conroy’s filter have slowed Internet access for all sites, but the blacklist of banned sites inevitably made many errors – for example, in 2009 Wikileaks revealed a trial list blocked websites for Queensland small businesses that included a dentist, tuck shop consultant and operator of boarding kennels.

“Moreover, the purveyors of child pornography are adept enough to change IP addresses frequently and distribute their material on peer to peer networks,” said Turnbull. “And not only would the filter have been ineffective but to make it worse it would have created a false sense of security in parents whose close engagement with and personal responsibility for their children is the only effective way of protecting young people online.”

Similar criticisms have been levelled at the data retention and surveillance proposal, with critics pointing out that savvy criminals or terrorists using the Internet to communicate would be likely to do so using tools such as encryption, to prevent law enforcement authorities snooping on their communications.

Turnbull said the most objectionable aspect of the Internet filter was its premise that the Government had the right to stop individuals accessing an arbitrarily chosen and unreviewable selection of content. “At first Labor claimed the list was limited to child pornography and sexually violent content, but Wikileaks revealed it extended to online gaming, YouTube and Wikipedia links, information about euthanasia, and sites operated by both fringe and mainstream religions, not to speak of many legitimate sites included in error,” Turnbull said.

“No matter what view one takes of objectionable material, the filter would represent a profound weakening of online liberty in Australia. Last year, during the uprisings across the Arab world, Senator Conroy dismissed the notion of the Internet being cut off as it was in Egypt: “…Australia’s a vibrant democracy, where the government doesn’t control the Internet…””

“That statement was only true because thanks to the opposition of the Coalition and the Greens he has been unable to get his mandatory filter legislation through the Senate.”

The filter and data retention schemes share a number of other aspects. Both projects were developed initially behind closed doors in response to stimulus from a small number of niche interest groups. In the case of the filter, it was largely conservative religious groups which pushed for the development of such a system, whereas in the data retention example, it has been law enforcement authorities such as the Australian Federal Police. In addition, both proposals seek to universally monitor and control a certain aspect of all Australians’ behaviour online. Neither system has been implemented as comprehensively internationally as the Australian Government is planning in Australia, and both proposals were developed through secret, closed door talks, with very limited public consultation, and strongly opposed by most Australians.

Conroy’s response
In the several years since the Government announced the review of Australia’s content classification system, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has rarely commented on the status of the government’s filter plans, leading to speculation that the Government is seeking to avoid drawing attention to the unpopular policy.

Asked about the current status of the project yesterday, a spokesman for the Minister repeated a very similar statement to that which Conroy’s office has been making for the past six months regarding the filter. “We commenced a review of the classification system and decided that the issue of cyber safety would be considered after the review,” they said. “The Government has received the report and is still considering its response.”

“In the meantime, three providers – Telstra, Optus, and Cyberone – are blocking access to sites on the Interpol “worst of” list. This represents 75 per cent of internet users being filtered and no user has complained about any impact on speed. Other service providers are also in discussion about doing this.”

It’s been six months since the Australian Law Reform Commission published its report on classification of content in Australia, six months since Conroy indicated the Government expected a “positive outcome” ahead on the issue following further talks with the telecommunications industry, and two years since the policy was put on ice pending the results of that review.

Minister Conroy, it is time to come clean. As Malcolm Turnbull implied this week, it’s time for the Government to abandon its mandatory Internet filter as a “bad idea” and admit it made a mistake on this one. If it does not abandon the Internet filter project, I personally pledge that I will continue to investigate this issue and publish articles highlighting the fact that the filter is still official Labor policy, until the issue is resolved once and for all. Labor must wash its hands of this policy; the issue will not go away until it does.

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. What would peoples opinion be if the data retention policy was to only retain data where customers accessed the Interpol “worst of” list?

    It wouldnt be difficult to set up a filter system to passively collect metadata on those pings.

    • “What would peoples opinion be if the data retention policy was to only retain data where customers accessed the Interpol “worst of” list?”

      The same. It’s an odious attempt to surveil the general populous for “various reasons” that cannot be fully described. It falls squarely under “we are afraid of terrorists” knee-jerk reaction the world has taken.

      China’s great-firewall is universally condemned. At the very same time, democratic republics and states are all desperately trying to implement their own.

      It all comes down to control of data. Years past, governments and agencies tried to control the flow of information. This is the modern day equivalent. Same sh!t, different time.

    • The problem is that the moment that the mechanism is in place, the scope of material that that mechanism is scouring can be changed quietly under the radar.

      If the mechanism doesn’t exist, the scope can’t creep.

  2. so wait a sec…..the ISP industry itself, through its representative body, the IIA, says isp level filtering of child abuse material is worlds’ best practice. So Turnbull is against world’s best practice for the ISP industry?

  3. In my view, it’s not “what” Labor want to do here, it’s “how” they want to do it.

    I have no problem with an Interpol controlled filter that blocks “the worst of the worst” child porn.

    I also have no problem with them retaining someones data AS LONG AS THEY GET A COURT ORDER to retain that data. There is a reason that the judiciary are the 3rd pillar of society, and no government should be allowed to bypass it.

    • I dont even mind if they can ask for specific data to be kept without a warrant, pursuant to some valid investigation (not sure how they could prove this, but anyway), as long as they are never allowed to see the kept data without a warrant.
      I see a valid reason to ask for time sensitive or urgent action, however it must be both of appropriate scale, have appropriate safeguards from abuse, and valid by the principles of the law.

      Manditory data retention fails all three, where as the ability to phone up and go “we think the owners of mobile numbers, x-1 through x-5 are about to coordinate something nasty in the next half hour, please log their stuff while we get our warrant sorted out”, is perfectly within the principles of the law as we hold it at present, and given the rapid real time nature of the internet, a more appropriate power to grant them.

      I dont think they should get it without a warrant, but when you only catch wind of some kind of crime less than an hour beforehand, or minutes afterwards, you dont get a lot of time to find cause for warrants, and even less when its after the fact and you need to gather whatever digital evidence exists before its either deliberately or automatically purged from systems. But rule 1 should always be “they need a proper warrant that specifies all the data they get to see” and the ISPs etc, should face criminal charges if they show them a byte more data than they were allowed.

  4. It’s a hypothetical question at the moment, but:

    What would the Coalition’s policies, on data retention and government censorship of the Internet, be if they were in government?

    Given the spooks are pushing for the former, and the god botherers are pushing for both (they probably don’t know the difference), it might be hard for an incoming government to resist the pressure, despite the current rhetoric.

  5. I’d have a lot more time for MT’s comments if his party wasn’t voting to shield the data retention proposals from public scrutiny. As it is, it just feels like more hypocrisy from the Earl.

  6. Just a couple of differences between the filtering proposal and the data retention proposal.

    Firstly data retention is only part of the proposal which is being reviewed by the Senate Committee. To the best of my knowledge, and I am happy to be corrected, the security proposal has never been presented to a Labor Party Annual Conference to make it party policy. I note that Mr Turnbull has had very little to say about proposals such as ASIO being able to take over a third party computers to pursue enquiries. Nor has Turnbull asked why the current system is not working and new powers are needed.

    The mandatory internet filter proposal is Labor policy and has been for years. I would note that this was also proposed by the Coalition but they decided to make personal filters available free of charge as they had determined that a mandatory filtering system was not workable. The current ACMA black list is a derivative of the Coalition scheme.

    The consistency within these two proposals is the out right misrepresentations by both sides of politics.

    The issue with the internet filter proposal was never about speed. It was about there being better ways to deal with the access of inappropriate content by children than nationally blocking access to internet sites. The Interpol list only contains about 400 sites so speed is not going to be an issue. The statement from Conroy”s office is misleading at best. As the filtering proposal has not even made it into legislation it is impossible for the Coalition and the Greens to have stopped it passing through the Senate. Turnbull’s
    statement is therefore also misleading.

  7. So Malcolm… how did your party vote on the Ludlam proposal? Do you support that vote? If you do support your party’s vote, please explain how supporting that vote is different to supporting the data retention policy, and how it aligns with “letting the sunshine in” to government.


  8. Why is Labor still considering an expanded internet filter if the interpol one is already in place for 75% of internet users? It seems that Conroy’s often used justifications for a filter, i.e. to block the worst of the worst sites, have already been satisified with the interpol version? So what other sites do they still want to block and what will be the justifications now? It would have to be RC minus the worst of the worst? Can’t wait to hear the spin on why that is needed.

  9. “In the meantime, three providers – Telstra, Optus, and Cyberone – are blocking access to sites on the Interpol “worst of” list. This represents 75 per cent of internet users being filtered and no user has complained about any impact on speed. Other service providers are also in discussion about doing this.”

    This is utter and complete rubbish. If the major three ISPs in this country have gone for 12 months without one single user making a complaint about speed, I’ll eat my keyboard.

    Proof now, if you please!

    • Sorry but it isn’t rubbish!!!

      There are only about 400 sites on the Interpol list and none are high volume sites so there is no way known that this filtering was ever going to impact on speed.

      Because this effort doesn’t impact on speed doesn’t mean that Conroy’s mandatory filter with around 11,000 URLs and some being high volume wouldn’t.

      • You are merely making an assumption that it is correct. Evidence doesn’t work that way.

        The spokesman clearly said that not one single user had complained about any impact on speed — proof please, or I call bull.

        • So, if the spokesman clearly said it where is the issue? Are you going to go ask each individual user before your happen. You are merely making an assumption that it is INcorrect

        • Proof indeed.

          Show me one complaint that has been made about a speed issue directly related to the Interpol filter. Until then I will choose to believe the experts who have shown that the possibility of this occurring is virtually NIL.

          Don’t forget that the Interpol filter works on DNS address not the URL address. There is more chance of incorrect redirection than of speed issues. I have never seen any report of incorrect redirection being a problem.

  10. I feel sorry for Malcolm Turnbull.

    Here is a man who could easily win an election – its just unfortunate that he is being hampered by his own party and party politics.

    I like Turnbull. I dislike both Labor and Liberal/Coalition parties.

    We need to become a Republic so we can vote in Turnbull as President. :P

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