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.