Dumped: internet filter goes
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy angers the Australian Christian Lobby by backing away from his internet filter plan.PT4M3S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-291rh 620 349 November 9, 2012
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has always known his mandatory internet filtering scheme was a white elephant but waited years for a politically opportune moment to dump the failed and toxic policy.
I hope that the return to evidence-based policy by Senator Conroy doesn't persuade the Australian people that this government is necessarily a friend of the internet.Greens senator Scott Ludlam
For at least five years the government continued to advocate the scheme as virtually every expert and stakeholder save for the Australian Christian Lobby and Family First strongly opposed it. Today, Senator Conroy announced the broad mandatory filter would be scrapped, replaced by a filter targeting only a finite list of child porn sites identified by Interpol.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy spent years pursuing a misguided idea that the internet could be regulated like books and movies. Photo: Paul Jones
The original policy attracted vocal opposition from online consumers, lobby groups, ISPs, network administrators, some children's welfare groups, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the opposition, the Greens, former High Court justice Michael Kirby, Google, the US ambassador to Australia, Labor MPs and even the conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who famously tried to censor chef Gordon Ramsay's television swearing.
The beginning of the end for the policy came back in July 2010 when, in the face of withering criticism, Senator Conroy launched a review of the filter's scope. Today, by pivoting to a child porn-only blacklist the government has been able to dump its previous policy while coming up with an alternative that has the support of ISPs.
Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said the internet filter had been abandoned only because Senator Conroy had been forced to recognise he could not get it through Parliament.
The censorship plan won Senator Conroy the "Internet Villain of the Year" trophy, awarded by the British internet industry.
“Conroy's humiliating backdown comes after five years of bullying bluster about his internet filter. But don't be fooled. He hasn't turned into a libertarian. His instinct is always to control and dominate,” said Turnbull.
“This is the minister who boasted that he had the power to make telco executives wear red underpants on their heads.”
Mark Gregory, senior lecturer at RMIT's school of electrical and computer engineering, said the junked policy was “unworkable, not because it could not be implemented, but because of the debate over what would be censored and who would control what was on the censorship list”.
Telecommunications expert Bjorn Landfeldt, a former University of Sydney professor, co-authored a report delivered to the Rudd government in early 2008 that said schemes to block inappropriate content such as child pornography were fundamentally flawed.
He said the technology did not work effectively as anyone who was determined to access the blocked content could still do so. A broad mandatory filter would slow internet speeds and inevitably block access to legitimate material.
The plan was originally to censor “prohibited content” and then “refused classification” material but these parameters were broad, poorly defined and captured relatively innocuous websites like some regular adult porn and graffiti.
A purported secret Australian Communications and Media Authority blacklist leaked by Wikileaks contained pages of many seemingly innocent businesses, including a tour operator, a Queensland dentist and even a school tuckshop consultancy. ACMA today said the leaked list was an "inaccurate amalgam of various versions of the ACMA's prohibited URL" list and the seemingly innocent URLs were added to the list because they were hacked to host child abuse material.
Landfeldt also raised issues of scope creep, transparency and accountability and questioned whether children were stumbling across content such as child pornography in the first place. No filter would be able to keep up with the enormous amount of content being published on the web every day and under previous guises the policy had the potential to block entire user-generated content sites such as YouTube or Wikipedia over a single video or article.
Now a professor at Sweden's Lund University, Landfeldt welcomed Senator Conroy's backdown today but he was still concerned by reports that police could issue takedown notices to ISPs.
“While the limited scope makes a huge difference to the feasibility aspects, the questions surrounding transparency still remain if this holds true,” said Landfeldt.
He said it was “time to discuss effective ways of protecting and guiding young people around the internet instead of chasing mirages”.
Greens senator Scott Ludlam said the government's "return to evidence-based policy" was not driven by an admission that it was wrong but by a "successful grassroots campaign".
He said the new policy would be less open to abuse and scope creep but "some of the arguments against the broader filter are still live in that it's very easy to circumvent if you're looking for this material, it doesn't get any images taken offline it doesn't lead to prosecutions".
"Even as this one gets put to bed the attorney-general's department is cooking something that in my view is more dangerous than the filter ever would have been, around data retention and the national security inquiry," Ludlam said in a phone interview.
"I hope that the return to evidence-based policy by Senator Conroy doesn't persuade the Australian people that this government is necessarily a friend of the internet."
Network engineer Mark Newton said several ACMA studies and even Senator Conroy's own department told him the original policy wouldn't deliver results worthy of the cost but he ploughed ahead “to avoid losing face”.
“It was always unworkable because distributing a list of thousands of worst-of-the-worst URLs to hundreds of ISPs was going to be a security and workability nightmare, and Conroy never thought that through,” said Newton.
“Even now there's precious little detail about how the Interpol list is going to be distributed and implemented: How many sysadmins will have access to the plaintext list in their name server configuration files?”
Jon Lawrence, spokesman for online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), said the government had known this was a deeply unpopular, unworkable and failed policy for some time but waited until it felt politically safe to abandon it.
“The filter would have been trivial to circumvent for those it was targeted at ... it would also have seriously impinged free speech in Australia as it was targeted at a very broad range of issues, using a secret blacklist,” he said.
Nigel Phair, former cyber cop turned security consultant, said many Australians discovered “proxies” and “IP filtering” during the Olympics as it allowed them to watch overseas broadcasts, and the same technology could be used to get around any filter.
Lawrence welcomed the new approach targeting only child pornography, provided the list of blocked sites had effective oversight.
But the fight among internet freedom advocates has now turned to the government's data-retention proposals which the EFA believes is “equally flawed and becoming equally unpopular”.
However, this next battle will be against more than just the Christian lobby. With the data retention proposals having the support of Australia's national security establishment, police, ASIO, the US government and other powerful bodies, some of whom have said publicly they want internet data stored indefinitely, the grassroots campaigners could find themselves powerless to stop another dark chapter in Australia's internet history.