The Evolution Of Labor Internet Filter Policy

It's been nearly three years since the Labor government was elected, and for almost the entire time they have been pushing their plan to censor Australians' internet connections. The debate has been highly controversial from day one. Many people expected that the Government would back away from their plans once they realised how unworkable and contentious they were, but at every step of the way they have pushed ahead with renewed enthusiasm.

Now that we're headed into election season, it might be a good time for a review of where the scheme has gotten to, and take a glimpse at what the road ahead looks like.

Labor's plan to implement Internet filtering was announced before the 2007 in a document entitled "Labor's Plan for Cyber-Safety". This document discussed a number of cyber-safety risks children face, and then described the policies the ALP would pursue in government, including:

Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.

The document goes on to elaborate:

Mandatory ISP Filtering

A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.

Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material.

Labor will also ensure that the ACMA black list is more comprehensive. It will do so, for example, by liaising with international agencies such as Interpol, Europol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre and ISPs to ensure that adequate online protection is provided to Australian children and families.

The public therefore understood that the policy would be focused on cyber-safety - that is, filtering out material unsuitable for children. It also indicated that the filter would be optional, as the language used - ISPs required to "offer" - and the cyber-safety focus would not make sense if it were applied wholesale to all internet users. In fact, the policy document explicitly states the filter would only apply to internet connections where children were present ("...accessible by children").

The policy document also indicated that the filter would apply to anything rated R-18+ and above, as the current ACMA blacklist includes R-rated, X-rated, and "Refused Classification" material.

Shortly after the election, the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy came out with an announcement. Waiting until New Year's Eve to make the announcement, Conroy indicated that it would soon be mandatory "for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material." He also set the tone for the debate with this line, which infuriated many:

"If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree."

The Minister also made many statements in the media about "inappropriate" content. When he welcomed a government study into dynamic filtering - whereby the filter examines web pages in real-time to check their suitability for children - it seemed still clear that was to be a voluntary, ISP-level "Net Nanny" sort of filter.

The 2008-09 budget described the initiative as "Internet Service Provider level filtering of an expanded Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist".

A lot has happened since those early days. The plan has evolved in response to media pressure since the original announcement. Firstly, technical results have made it clear that the "Net Nanny" sort of filtering is not possible at the ISP-level, with a Government trial showing slowdowns by as much as 85%.

The sensational leak of the existing, though not enforced, ACMA blacklist in March 2009 proved highly embarrassing for the Government. The inclusion of controversial (or merely bizarre) sites such as a dentist and a tuck-shop supply company demonstrated clearly to the Australian public that a secret blacklist was controversial and dangerous. After this occurred, Conroy's remarks slowly changed to talk about Refused Classification (RC) filtering only.

So what's the final word on what's to be filtered? While no comprehensive policy document has since been released, the Department put out a discussion paper on accountability which gives the best indication of what is planned. It states:

Overseas hosted content that is classified RC will be included on a list maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for the purpose of ISP filtering. This list will be known as the ‘RC content list’. It will be compiled in two ways:

* overseas-hosted content that is the subject of a complaint from the public made to the ACMA and

* incorporation of international lists of overseas-hosted child sexual abuse material from highly reputable overseas agencies following a detailed assessment of the processes used by those agencies to compile their lists.

In the meantime, it has been made abundantly clear that the filter will no longer be optional - either opt-in or opt-out - but will be mandatory for all internet connections in Australia. Over time, the rhetoric has also shifted from child-protection to "harmonising" the classification laws, following the line of reasoning that if you cannot buy it in a bookstore, you shouldn't be able to see it on the web.

The filter currently exists as draft legislation. It was expected to be introduced earlier this year, but has been deferred until after the election. Over the last couple of years, the filter has gotten a bit of attention in Parliament with the Greens and the Opposition asking a few pointed questions of the Minister, but it is yet to come to a formal debate. Since the Greens are on record opposing the policy, it will require the support of the Coalition to make it through the senate. It's unclear yet how they will vote on the policy. Some, like Joe Hockey and Senator Sue Boyce, have been quite vocal in their opposition to the scheme. However, we know that many in the Liberal Party would love to see a crackdown on offensive content online. It was, after all, the Liberal Party that gave us the current system where ACMA compile a blacklist and have prohibited content removed from Australian servers.

One could make a good argument that the Australian people have been stung by an old-fashioned "bait & switch", where a policy that was all about helping parents and protecting kids has become a censorship "harmonisation" scheme without being clearly acknowledged as such. Polls show that Australians do have concerns about cyber-safety and online content, but if they understand the way the secret blacklist will work and what it will achieve for children - nothing - they are likely to be much more skeptical. Confusion on the matter therefore helps the Government, so don't be surprised if you continue to hear the filter talked about as if was still the National Net Nanny that was dreamt up in 2007.

Colin Jacobs is the Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia. Having made a career out of developing internet applications, he is keenly aware the impact such legislation can have on the technology industry. His particular areas of interest include fair use and consumer rights, copyright and patent reform, and most particularly Internet censorship.

[Fight the Filter]


Comments

    You missed one stage of the evolution - the first, as it were.

    The policy was originally introduced by Beazley, who emitted this press release:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20060422120043/http://www.alp.org.au/media/0306/msloo210.php

    Note the explicit optionality of the scheme, "existing regulations will apply."

    Come a long way, haven't we?

    - mark

    just another form of control.

    Why do the major parties continue down the track of implementing this odious net filter, when the subject is now poison in the electorate?

    just to be clear. they are making it MANDATORY for ALL Australians to have their internet filtered so that it is suitable for CHILDREN??? isn't that like the R18+ Games debate? are they saying that the only people who use the internet are Kids?

    "Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material."

    wtf? child porn is illegal for ANYONE to view, not just CHILDREN!?? what is it??? is it about creating a safe environment for KIDS online? or is it about filtering content not suitable for ANY Australians?? WTF!!?!?

    in summing up: as far as I can tell, they are putting a child lock on the internet that will apply to EVERYONE!

    Welcome to the Police State of Australia...I wonder how many taxpayers will leave the country as their freedoms are taken from them?

      I've already started dusting off the info for my dual citizenship. A shame, because I used to love this country.

      "The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation." - Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler)

        amazing quote

        "F--k the children" - George Carlin

    "Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material."

    Yes - child porn is bad. This is a recording.

    Now ALL sites with even slight pornographic material will be blocked. I, for one, don't want this to happen AT ALL.

    There will be Family First members sitting online all day scouring the net for any questionable site and submitting ALL sites they find to the gov't to add to the blacklist.

    I am *so angry* that this is still going ahead.

    NO ONE (OK - massive majority) WANTS THIS FILTER.

    How many times have you accidently stumbled across illegal online content that you wish wasn't visible from Australia?

    Do you realise that you can restrict your browser settings yourself? install free nanny software? ask your ISP to apply their safe filter to your internet connection? report specific websites of concern to the authorities for removal and prosecution?

    Do you realise that most illegal online content isn't shared via websites anyway?

    I find it particularly appalling that Labor went to the 2007 election with "mandatory for ISPs to offer a clean feed", which soonafter, quietly, became "everyone filtered".

    And now Conroy has the gall to say Labor has a mandate to implement a completely different policy.

    I think it's really important THIS election to get every party to explicitly state their position on mandatory censorship, and who their preferences will flow to. We have evidence that our now elected officials are prepared to lie to achieve their aim. They should be ashamed, but they're not.

    If the ALP really think they have a mandate to implement mandatory censorship, then perhaps this could be confirmed with a referendum. Surely such a trashing of our freedoms deserves more attention.

    The internet is one of the last bastions of free speech and it scares all democratically elected Governments.If they are allowed to filter or control the net, then they can effectively stop all open debate and comments on it's policies.
    The old tired "Bush" doctrine of "If you are not with us ,you must be against us" is tired and no longer convinces anyone
    This plan will be shelved in time for the next election only to raise its ugly head once the Govt.is back in power.
    The Australians are much wiser to this than Gillard and Conroy gives them credit for. However they will still continue to patronize and treat the electorate with contempt, a lesson to which John Howard found out to his dismay

    The Internet Filter protects the Government, not children!

    Even apart from the enormous human-rights issues at stake, what's the cost-benefit analysis of this policy? A great deal of our money has already been spent on the possibly illegal trials and in promoting a law it's evident people don't want. This is OUR money.

    We will pay for this eternally: once (at least) in the waste of tax-payers' money, and every month in raised ISP charges (because the government is forcing a major load on ISPs). We didn't even ask for this policy. Why should we pay for Senator Fielding's wish list? Honestly, I'd donate to help him get counselling: it would save the country a great deal of money in the long term. "Yes, Steve, we understand you're frightened of the Internet. But has it ever actually bitten you? Can you take off the bandaid and show us?"

      Thats is the most disturbing aspect. Spending tax money (when it surely could go towards a surplus for something more useful, like health, super, aged care, extending pensions, etc).
      But instead we have what we are to believe, a government we elected, listening to very few of the voters to do one thing. Keep themselves in power.
      Dont think its beyond the scope, they are just humans, looking for their wonderful tax payer funded lifetime pension (how the f#ck is that fair?!) and doing whatever it takes to secure that.

    This is an issue i feel very strongly about. I have done a lot of research into the subject and compiled my findings in a report that can be found on my blogger page: http://fightagainstfilter.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-you-should-know.html
    Its a bit of a long read (theres so much information to contain it in, but i tink its well worth the read, especially for the una
    initiated.

    The weasel words are worth considering: does "unclassified" include bit torrents or any site which may enable an computer based in Australia to obtain (say) copyright material not otherwise cleared for Australia? Is the scheme in reality a way to enforce ACTA or similar? Maybe this has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with money. Gee. That would be a surprise. By simply refusing to classify any sites offering MP3s, presumably that site would be unlawful and therefore blocking would be... lawful. Regardless of whether the site offers a mix of legitimate and uncleared recordings.

    Just a thought.

    Hey all. Yank here. Just wanted to wish you luck from the other side of the ocean!
    Don't write to the government, they're not listening, write to your press! Tell them what questions you want to have asked.
    Better yet, show up to the press conferences yourself!

    All the best on behalf of the US of A!

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