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The Filter Is Dead: Australian Government Dumps Controversial Filtering Project [Updated]

Almost three years ago now, Senator Stephen Conroy stepped up to the plate to deliver a bold new vision. A vision of a filtered, “safer” internet. The plan was met by hostility from internet rights activists, poiticians, internet users, internet service providers and interest groups alike. Tonight, however, the Labor government’s proposed mandatory internet filter is dead.

From the get-go, we made our feelings known about the government’s plan to filter the internet, and neither was the broader population of Australia’s internet users.

The original filter proposition, aired in a 2007 paper on how Labor would ensure the safety of kids online, would have seen the government impose a mandatory “clean feed” on Austraian internet users:

Way back when Kevin Rudd was the Prime Minister, this was the plan:

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.

That ACMA blacklist turned out to contain some of the worst of the worst sites on the internet, including but not restricted to child pornography sites and other high-impact content. The list was leaked in 2009, although the government never admitted that it was the actual list. The most concerning thing about the leaked list was the presence of several sites not pertaining to high-impact content that would offend children. A dentist website, for example, was one of the results. That gave way to suspicions that the blacklist wasn’t entirely infallible.

Add to that the fact that the content set to be filtered was constantly under debate. Would the filter block gambling sites? BDSM or bondage material or so-called “golden showers” as Senator Conroy himself discussed during the filter back-and-forth? We’ll never really know for sure.

Never missing a chance to leap on a popular issue, the Federal Opposition said that they would oppose the filter and everything that it stood for. High-profile members of the IT and business community came out to oppose the filter. In August 2010, Conroy admitted to ARN that the filter would likely never make it through the parliament.

All had been quiet on the filter front for a few months, as Conroy continued to promise “surprises” when it came to the clean feed proposal.

As Conroy and the government quietly worked away on a carefully calculated retreat plan, three internet service providers were working to implement a filter of their own. The ISPs, including Optus and Telstra, worked to deploy a filter that would block the Interpol blacklist — a list containing the very worst and most objectionable material ever to hit the internet.

And yet as the deployment of the Interpol filter came and went, nobody made a sound, nor a protest, nor an angry letter. Nobody cared that child porn was going to be blocked, people cared when they thought it might be more.

Snap back to present day, and Conroy’s office has just issued a statement saying that it will walk away from mandatory internet filtering, and instead urge ISPs to implement the same Interpol filter that ISPs like Telstra and Optus are already running. The statement isn’t live online just yet, but according to the outlets Conroy gave it to ahead of time, the new filtering regime will cover 90 per cent of the population, based on the ISPs that have already agreed to come on board with the plan.

The government isn’t giving ISPs a choice, either. It’s using a section of the Telecommunications Act to compel ISPs to comply with the Interpol blacklist. According to ZDNet, iiNet is one of the ISPs that is already on board.

Update: Conroy has just released his statement regarding the filter to the wider press. Here’s a few interesting quotes from Conroy himself.

Blocking the INTERPOL ‘worst of’ list meets community expectations and fulfils the government’s commitment to preventing Australian internet users from accessing child abuse material online, Senator Conroy said. Given this successful outcome, the Government has no need to proceed with mandatory filtering legislation.

In 2010, the Government announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission would review the refused classification category, after community concern that it didn’t reflect community standards.

Following public consultation, the ALRC recommended in February 2012 that refused classification should be narrowed into a prohibited content category, which includes illegal content like child abuse material.

In line with this recommendation, Australia’s largest ISPs have been issued with notices requiring them to block these illegal sites in accordance with their obligations under theTelecommunications Act 1997. Telstra and Optus agreed to block the INTERPOL list in 2010, with the Australian Federal Police subsequently issuing the relevant notices. They have reported that this has had no impact on internet speeds or congestion and they have had no reports of people being denied access to legitimate web content.

I welcome the support of Australia’s major ISPs and the Internet Industry Association for taking appropriate steps to meet their lawful obligations. This means that more than 90% of Australians using internet services will have child abuse material blocked by their ISP.

For the full statement, head here.

So that’s it. Australia’s mandatory internet filter is finally — as the Coalition put it — dead, buried and cremated.


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