On first impressions it looked like a minor victory: Despite telling us mere days ago that the Government’s much reviled ISP censorship policy would be heading to the Parliament as soon as November, Senator Conroy announced that it’d now be delayed by at least 12 months to give time for the State Attorneys General to review the Refused Classification (RC) category.
But dig a little bit deeper, and it’s difficult to find succour in the announcement by taking it at face value. To a very large degree, the “delay” is only credible if you believed that Minister Conroy was even remotely capable of delivering draft legislation before the end of next year in the first place. With NBN enabling legislation to pass, the digital TV switchover, and a Senate which will probably be even more hostile to showboating after the next election, it’s tempting to think that the Government’s implementation schedule hasn’t changed at all, it’s merely acknowledged that it has difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time.
There are some elements of the new plan (which may be the eighth or ninth so far, it’s hard to keep count) which are definitely positive.
For instance, third party review by someone other than ACMA is a welcome addition, even if it’ll only catch blacklist abuse after-the-fact, allowing the Bill Hensons of the world to remain banned for up to 12 months.
Notifications to website operators informing them that they’re being blacklisted adds an element of workability to a system that has thus far totally refused to inform site owners that they’ve been hacked and are involuntarily hosting illegal content. I expect that this is the most fragile of Conroy’s “transparency and accountability” measures, and will only last until RC content hosts use the notices as a signal to change their URLs.
I think the hasty announcement about Telstra, Optus and Primus voluntarily imposing ACMA’s blacklist on their customers is the kind of policy-on-the-run that we grew used to in this “good Government that lost its way.” As of a few days ago Conroy was happily asserting that it’d be months before legislation hit the Parliament, and ISPs were sitting back at arms length waiting to see what happened next. Yet here we are today, and all of a sudden three ISPs come out of the woodwork at exactly the same time and jump on board. If it was such a good idea today, why wasn’t it a good idea last week? What assurances have been offered to these ISPs to act now, when they’ve not acted for the entire three year period that this policy has been in play?
Not that I’m complaining, mind you: I’ve long held that the Government’s stated policy objectives are covered as long as there are at least a handful of filtered options in the marketplace which customers can choose to acquire. ISP customers can now make an informed choice, and if they want Labor’s Internet instead of the Internet they’ve been using for the last 20 years then that’s great, problem solved, we can all stop arguing and go home, right?
The big detail which has received little comment, though, is the wording of the delay’s announcement: Conroy didn’t say the scheme was delayed for 12 months, he said it’d be delayed until the State Attorneys General have completed a review into the RC category, which is expected to take at least 12 months from its commencement.
It’s increasingly obvious that children who were entering their teenage years when the policy was first announced will be old enough to vote by the time it’s ready for implementation. A whole generation of new voters will have spent their political formative years with the understanding that the ALP hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s doing online.
There’s no particular reason to believe that the State A-G’s will agree to review the RC category at all, even if they were asked, which, as yet, they haven’t been. And the results of any review will require unanimous consent from the Commonwealth and all State A-G’s before it can be implemented, otherwise they’ll end up languishing in limbo alongside the R18+ games issue.
For those on my side of the debate the desired outcome of the review will involve abolition of the RC category. Where will that leave a Minister who has spent the eight months since his last significant policy change trying to ban RC content on the internet?
For me, the review is the single most significant aspect of the announcement. Up until now, Senator Conroy has rather childishly dismissed the legitimate concerns of his critics by drawing allusions to supporters of child pornography. He’s been so desperate to shut down debate over his censorship proposal that he’s even dissed one of his own party’s Senators, Kate Lundy. There has been no evidence of comprehension from him that he has the slightest understanding of the motivations of the scheme’s detractors, preferring instead to focus on imaginary paeds under the bed.
Yet here he is now, not only acknowledging those concerns for the first time, but announcing a deferment of his scheme so that public complaints can be independently reviewed. Even without a significant policy shift, that’s an amazing behavioural shift to witness in the space of one short week. One hopes it isn’t a mere temporary aberration.
So now it’s really over to us: We can turn today’s effort into an exercise of running down the clock, knowing that the exact same battles over the exact same policy will need to be fought in 12 months time. Or we can redouble our efforts to lobby our Commonwealth MPs, and make cogent representations to the State A-G’s enquiry if it ever materialises, using it as an opportunity to cut the legs out from under the censorship proposal.
Meanwhile, there’s an election coming up. This issue isn’t dead, the Government has simply announced today that, if elected, they fully intend to keep pursuing it. Pay careful attention to your vote, particularly the upper-house tablecloth. Vote below the line, remember our friends, and condemn our enemies. The makeup of the next Parliament will make or break this policy once and for all.
Mark Newton has spent almost 10 years serving as a boots-on-the-ground network engineer for one of Australia’s largest ISPs. He has been an active participant in the online censorship debate since before most of its present day protagonists knew the internet existed. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily shared by his employer.