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.
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