The Tangled Web


It was during the ALP’s federal election campaign that then shadow minister for communications Stephen Conroy announced the ALP’s Plan for Cyber-Safety that has since come to be known variously as the "clean feed", InternetWatch, or Conroy’s filter.

In the plan, Labor stated that in order to protect Australian children from a range of cyber-ills, a Labor government would "provide a mandatory ‘clean’ feed internet service to all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children".

It went on to promise that "Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material."

The proposal was ALP policy when the Rudd Government was elected in November 2007 and, notably, details of the policy have not changed at all since it was released prior to the election.

Naturally, at the time of the announcement, concerns about the filtering proposal were widespread. How would the filter be implemented; which content would be "prohibited" and how would the classification be administered; and would the proposal deliver on protecting children from harmful content and other dangers posed by the internet?

The word "mandatory" raised specific concerns — no other Western government had introduced internet filtering without providing the option to "opt-out". The proposal was likened to internet censoring regimes in repressive states like China and Iran. There was a call for more information but the issue was not big on either the incoming government’s or the media’s agenda and the ALP managed to get away with not providing any.

On the last day of 2007, Minister Conroy made an interestingly timed announcement that upset civil libertarians and internet industry experts alike by reducing the debate to an "Us and Them" stand-off. "Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road," Conroy said. "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."

The next installment came in May last year, when the Government announced $125.8 million for a "comprehensive" cyber-safety plan to be implemented over four years. The announcement outlined a range of cyber-safety measures, including "law enforcement, filtering and awareness".

The budget announcement also promised that "a real world ‘live’ pilot involving ISPs and their customers will follow an Australian Communications and Media Authority laboratory trial due to be completed in June 2008".

The ACMA trials were in fact a directive of the previous government, and then communications minister Helen Coonan, and were already on track. They took place in Tasmania in June and the results were welcomed by Conroy in July, even though industry analysts described them as damning. ACMA’s 89-page report is very dry and technical but basically details the extent to which a range of filtering products slow down internet access. It also gives "overbreadth" stats (how much material was blocked that shouldn’t have been) and "underbreadth" stats (how much material wasn’t blocked that should have been).

Conroy managed to put a neat spin on the results. While he was optimistic — pointing out that the most accurate filters blocked more than 92 per cent and the fastest only slowed the internet down 2 per cent — he failed to point out that the fastest filters were the poorest at both over- and under-blocking while the most accurate were the slowest. In addition, the testing simulated approximately 30 internet users which was considered to be insufficient at best, laughable at worst.

Of course, Conroy’s comments were met with more questions, or, more accurately, the same ones were posed again, as he became conspicuously absent from public debate on the issue. Meanwhile the groundswell of concern about the filtering proposal intensified.

Research by civil liberties groups, internet industry bodies, cultural organisations and children’s advocacy groups was conveying serious doubts about the legitimacy, effectiveness and viability of a mandatory filtering system.

At best, the Government’s proposal is described as "confused". Critics continue to point out that the Minister has not yet defined words such as "unwanted" and "inappropriate" and refers inconsistently to the mandatory and voluntary tiers of the proposed filter, especially when making international comparisons. For example, in defending the proposal, Conroy has aligned Australia with other Western democracies such as the UK, Sweden and New Zealand, all of which have internet filtering systems in place. However, he neglects to mention a fundamental difference: he is proposing a mandatory filter here, while those countries all have opt-in systems.

At worst, its critics say the proposal undermines Australia’s democratic freedoms. Opponents have identified a range of concerns — from the threat of a censorship wedge to the breach of privacy and the technical impracticality of literally checking the content of all the billions of sites that are accessed by Australians every day. The details of the ACMA blacklist are unknown — or at least disputed — the classification process is unclear, the possibilities are boundless for which sites and content will be taken down and prohibited as "unwanted" or "inappropriate". There are also major concerns that the filter would cripple internet speed and the implications that would have for business and social communications, as well as about how representative the trials actually are of everyday internet usage in Australia.

Furthermore, no one is convinced that this filter would ensure that children would indeed be protected from accessing harmful content or exploitation via the internet.

In the months following the ACMA trials, the Minister more or less went to ground on the issue, turning the public’s attention to other potentially less fraught projects such as the national broadband network, the digital television rollout and the review of the public broadcasters.

But in October, Conroy and his staff were grilled on the issue by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam in a senate estimates hearing. The Minister deflected questions and did not reveal any further details. The issue was again pursued by Ludlam in the Senate in November, when he asked Conroy to define "unwanted" content and explain why he insisted on comparing Australia to countries without mandatory filtering systems. While Conroy’s response did little to allay concern, the exchange did revive public debate and offered a springboard for the momentum that was growing among opponents to the proposal.

By November last year, protest against the filter had moved into top gear. Industry bodies, civil libertarians, ISPs, cultural organisations and social networks were expressing their opposition. GetUp launched its "Save the Net" campaign and there was a national day of action on December 12. The issue was also gathering interest abroad, with academics at the Brooklyn Law School weighing into the debate.

Despite the groundswell, the Government forged on with its proposal, avoiding or deflecting criticism and deferring the debate. Finally in December, Senator Conroy made a long-awaited announcement that industry trials would take place over Summer — starting on Christmas Eve. ISPs were invited to participate. These were the promised "real-world" trials, where ISPs would be engaged to test the filter with consumers. There were hurdles immediately, however, as major ISPs such as Telstra refused to be involved and iiNet offered to join in with the expressed purpose of pointing out how flawed the whole idea was.

The "show trials", as Senator Ludlam has called them, didn’t kick off as planned on Christmas Eve, but Conroy again left the punters guessing by making no official announcement to explain why.

Clean feed watchers were not left without any Summer action, however. On Australia Day, up stepped the Director of the Australian Christian Lobby Jim Wallace, a lone voice arguing in favour of Conroy’s "filth filter" on the opinion pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and a few days later, in a live debate with ISP expert Mark Newton on Radio National.

It wasn’t until 11 February that details of the live pilot were made public. Neither Optus nor iiNet were selected to take part. Instead, six smaller ISPs were named: Primus Telecommunications, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1. Tech experts pointed out that these ISPs represent a very small percentage of Australian internet users, and the trial’s results would therefore not be representative.

Soon after, in what seemed like a bit of an aside, Conroy’s Department announced a major review of Australian and international research on cyber-safety to be undertaken by Edith Cowan University. Who knows, this could turn out to be a key turn of events as the story unfolds.

It was also around this time that the shadow minister for communications made a rare appearance in the debate. Presumably his job to keep the Minister on his toes was already being expertly performed by civil society. The SMH reported that Nick Minchin’s office had been given independent legal advice saying that in order for the Government to pursue a mandatory filtering regime "legislation of some sort will almost certainly be required". This whipped up another windstorm of commentary through the blogosphere — "was the campaign won and the filter proposal dead in the water?" The SMH story perhaps inflated that response with a misleading opening sentence: "The Government’s plan to introduce mandatory internet censorship has effectively been scuttled".

It hadn’t been. Last week on, Scott Ludlam looked at the Government’s other options should they attempt to bypass parliament.

Also last week, Australia drew more international attention with the dubious honour of being mentioned in the introduction of the Reporters Without Borders’ report Internet Enemies.

Meanwhile, information about the progress of the pilot — set in train in mid-February — is thin, although we hear reports that ISPs are waiting for trialing equipment to arrive from the USA.

Today, almost a year and a half after it was first announced, details of Conroy’s internet filtering plan remain something of a mystery. Despite persistent calls for information, the Minister has been unwilling or unable to answer many of the questions listed above. In fact, on ABC radio’s Background Briefing last week he managed to further confuse the issues.

Since October last year has published a number of articles on the filter. Our series of public forums, which begin tomorrow night in Brisbane, present an opportunity to take the debate off the screen and explore the broader ethical, social and political questions raised by government regulation of the internet.

What are the real questions for policy-makers? How do we regulate and manage the internet without paving a path for exploitation and corruption? Is filtering inevitable? Or are there better ways to regulate the world wide web?

If you’re in Brisbane, join us tomorrow night at Queensland University of Technology for A Tangled Web: Beyond an Internet Filter.

Similar forums will be held in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide over the coming weeks. For those who can’t attend, the conversation will continue online at our blog, Polliegraph, which has been redesigned especially for the series. Check it out and contribute to the debate here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.