Australian Filtering Debate Continues

Colin Jacobs, vice chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia, has written an article on Crikey that assesses both Australia’s filtering plan and my analysis of it. A number of blogs have picked up the story (North Coast Voices, Blogtariat, Woolly Days, Knowfirst, Your Democracy, Tech Talk at ABC Science Forum, Peak Energy, Tech News Review among others, and Rebecca MacKinnon generously Twittered it). (Is “Twitter” now a verb? I fear for our language.) [update 13 Jan. 2009: Paul Syvret at the Courier Mail has written an article as well.] Colin’s article has also generated some very valuable feedback on the piece, and I’ll be revising it shortly in light of comments. (To date, I’ve heard primarily from commentators who are concerned about the proposed filtering program; I’d be delighted to have input from proponents as well.) There are two consistent themes in the feedback that I’d like to share and address a bit:

First, Jacobs and others feel that I may overstate the influence of minority party Senators, such as Steve Fielding, on the composition and expansion of Labor’s filtering plans. This is entirely fair. My analysis, from reading media sources, was that Minister Stephen Conroy had enlarged the scope of material to be blocked to maintain sufficient support for Labor’s plan in Australia’s Senate. Another alternative is that the expansion derives either from Minister Conroy’s policy preferences, or from the larger Labor Party’s views. If true, this would be of concern, as it might indicate that Labor campaigned on a more limited filtering vision (geared primarily to child protection) with plans to expand censorship once in office. It’s difficult to know what is driving the political and policy dynamics behind the broadened sweep of filtering, and I’ll accordingly be more cautious in the next version of the paper.

Second, there is some suggestion that I may give the Labor government too much credit for openness – that the opacity of the proposed filtering system should undercut my positive assessment of Australia on the openness prong. Here I have to disagree slightly, with an explanation. Labor has been up front about its intentions to filter, and it has offered a rationale for doing so: child protection. My criticism of the government has been that it is not sufficiently transparent about what material should be blocked to protect children, how it will arrive at those decisions, and how it will implement them technologically. I treat this under the transparency prong of my analytical framework. In short, I think I agree with the thrust of this feedback – I just put it in a different slot in my methodology.

I also think that Labor deserves credit for pushing their filtering plan via the political process, rather than through back-room pressure on ISPs to “voluntarily” block access, as happened in Great Britain and even my home state of New York. The controversy over the program is a credit to this choice and to an engaged Internet community in Australia, including particularly Jacobs and the EFA.

The filtering trials that start this month will tell us a lot, and I’m eager to see how they come out.

2 Responses to “Australian Filtering Debate Continues”

  1. “Second, there is some suggestion that I may give the Labor government too much credit for openness – that the opacity of the proposed filtering system should undercut my positive assessment of Australia on the openness prong. Here I have to disagree slightly, with an explanation. Labor has been up front about its intentions to filter, and it has offered a rationale for doing so: child protection..”

    It is somewhat concerning that there is no mention of the fact that, in 2007 when Labor ran for federal election and immediately after winning government, Senator Conroy (first as a shadow spokesperson and later as Minister) repeatedly assured the Australian public that any filtering scheme would be on an individual opt-in basis.

    There was absolutely no mention of the two-tier filtering scheme (with the first tier mandatory) that he then announced initially via his ministerial staffers.

    Nor has there been any mention of the fact that his policy statement on the supposedly voluntary Internet filtering was not publicized or formally posted until the dying days of the Federal election campaign.
    Thereby keeping voter scrutiny to the lowest level possible.

    According to the Minister’s parliamentary office this week, the filtering trial will not start for 2 to 3 weeks yet (which will bring it into the beginning of next month).
    This is the second trail starting date that has been missed.
    This time without announcement or explanation beyond the fact that the ISP expressions of interest in taking part in the trial are still being considered.

  2. Thanks – this is very helpful feedback. I need to, and will, do some more extensive research on what Labor put forth during its campaign in terms of positions on Internet filtering. The official platform is relatively vague; it talks only about requiring ISPs to offer sanitized Internet access, which of course is not the same as mandatory filtering.

    Labor’s plan for cyber-safety, written by Senator Conroy, is more explicit:

    Labor will… 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.

    This seems more definite to me – “mandatory” looks relatively open. I need to double-check when this was promulgated, but I do think it supports the paper’s contention that Labor has been open about filtering plans.

    The delay in the trials is disappointing. I was eager to see what would occur on December 24, the initial date for the trials, and nothing came of it. I’d be interested if there is any data on why the government is delaying – is it due to ISP opposition? Uncertainty about technical details? More pressing issues?

    Thanks for writing – I’ve been checking out N. Coast Voices, and love any tech blog that’ll post LOLCat pictures…

    /D