Extract from Senate Hansard, 21st October 1999

Privileges Committee

   Senator McGAURAN (Victoria) (4.11 p.m.) -On behalf of Senator Knowles, I present the 80th report of the Committee of Privileges, entitled Persons Referred to in the Senate (Board members and staff of Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.) .

   Ordered that the report be printed.

   Senator McGAURAN - I seek leave to move a motion in respect of the report.

   Leave granted.

   Senator McGAURAN - I move:
   That the report be adopted.

This report is the 28th in a series of reports recommending that a right of reply be accorded to persons who claim to have been adversely affected by being referred to, either by name or in such a way as to be readily identified, in the Senate.

On 13 October 1999, the President received a letter from Mr Kimberley Heitman, Chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc., relating to remarks made by Senator the Hon. Richard Alston during debate in the Senate on 30 September 1999. The President referred the letter to the committee as a submission under privilege resolution 5. The committee considered the submission on 14 and 21 October 1999 and recommends that it be incorporated in Hansard.

The committee reminds the Senate that, in matters of this nature, it does not judge the truth or otherwise of statements made by honourable senators or persons. Rather, it ensures that these persons' submissions, and ultimately the responses it recommends, accord with the criteria set out in privilege resolution 5. I commend the report to the Senate.

The submission read as follows -


We, the individuals listed below, wish to seek redress under the resolution of the Senate of 25 February 1988 relating to the protection of persons referred to in the Senate (Privilege Resolution 5). We are readily identifiable as the persons referred to by Senator Alston, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, in the Senate debate on the topic "Internet Censorship" on 30 September 1999 (Hansard pages 8953-8955 inclusive), that is, the Board members and staff of Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc. (EFA):
Chair Mr Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris Llb, AACS
Vice Chair Mr Greg Taylor, B.Sc, B.Econ, Dip.Inf.Proc.
Secretary Ms Irene Graham
Board Members:
Dr Michael Baker, BSc (1st class hons), MPhil, PhD
Mr Michael Malone, B.Sc, DipEd
Mr Felipe Rodriquez
Ms Jan Whitaker, BS, MS (Education)
Mr Danny Yee, BSc (hons)
Executive Director Mr Darce Cassidy

Senator Alston stated that we are "maniacs", "low grade, undergraduate political activists", "have no interest at all in sensible and responsible regulation of the Internet" and are "not in the slightest bit interested in the welfare of the community, whether parents have concerns or anything else". Senator Alston also stated that we approve of offensive material being forced on children and adults and that we are the cause of a problem the Internet Industry Association and the Government have in negotiating a code of practice.

All these allegations are unsubstantiated and false. The Senator's remarks impugn our individual good characters, reputations and credentials, and those of the thousands of members and supporters of the organisation we represent. In addition, the Senator's remarks are factually incorrect, and we seek this opportunity to set the record straight.

The following facts are pertinent:

1. Senator Alston's description of EFA as "low grade, undergraduate political activists" is factually incorrect, and falsely deprecates the breadth of academic and professional expertise of the EFA Board. The majority of EFA Board members completed degrees in fields including law, education, science, engineering and economics more than ten years ago. None are undergraduates. Three-quarters are over the age of forty. All have been active users of the Internet for at least the last five years, and several are professionally involved in managing Internet services.

2. Senator Alston's statement that we are "not in the slightest bit interested in the welfare of the community, whether parents have concerns or anything else" is incorrect. Members of the Board and staff of EFA include responsible parents with a total of 10 children between them ranging in age from 1 year to 27 years. EFA's website has a section entitled "Advice for Parents - Information to guide and inform parents on ways to protect their children in using the Internet". This includes the "Australian Internet Parental Control Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) - A guide to assist concerned parents, legislators, educators, and the public in learning what is available today to protect children". This was compiled by EFA in 1996, long before any government agencies developed an interest in assisting parents. This document was drawn to the attention of the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards in our submission of March 1997 and an earlier version was included in our response to the Department of Communications' "Consultation Paper on the Regulation of on-line Information Services" in August 1995. Our concern is for the future of Australia's children and grandchildren - that we as a society not bequeath them with a censorship system that would be a totalitarian regime's dream, enabling the suppression of any dissenting voices on the Internet. The planned regime enables the suppression of voices following one complaint and empowers a statutory authority to suppress voices without a complaint being lodged. EFA has consistently argued that a Government serious about protecting children from online dangers must commit funds to parental education and police resources.

3. Senator Alston's statement that "there are these maniacs - these electronic frontiers outfits - running around stirring up trouble, using quaint expressions" is incorrect.

The Oxford Dictionary defines "maniac" as "person affected with mania" and "mania" as "mental derangement marked by excitement and violence". Senator Alston's allegation as to our mental stability has no basis in fact. Moreover, we have not advocated or engaged in violence. Last year Senator Alston's office invited EFA's current and then Chairperson to participate in the E-Commerce Enabling Australia Summit in Canberra. Senator Alston's office was aware of EFA's position on Internet regulation having received our detailed written response to the framework issued for public comment in August 1997. EFA's position on the matter has remained stable. The Government's has not.

Senator Alston's disparaging reference to EFA as an "outfit" is misleading. EFA is a non-profit national organisation formed in January 1994 and incorporated under South Australian law in May 1994 to protect and promote the civil liberties of users and operators of computer based communications systems. EFA members come from all parts of Australia and from diverse backgrounds.

Senator Alston opines that our expressions are "quaint". These are no more quaint than those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR was signed by the Australian Government in 1972, came into force in 1980 and reservations to Article 19, and to other articles, were retracted in 1984. The ICCPR forms Schedule 2 of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986. Article 19 of the ICCPR "quaintly" states:

"2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

Our comments on this matter are contained in our submission to the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies' inquiry of April/May 1999.

4. Senator Alston's statement that "they got themselves over to the recent Berterlsmann Conference and made a big noise there along the same lines" implies that there is something untoward about EFA's attendance at the Conference. This is not so.

Mr Jens Waltermann, Deputy Head, Policy, Media Division of the Bertelsmann Foundation invited EFA's Chairperson to attend. In his letter he said, inter alia: "It is with great pleasure that we invite you to be our guest in Munich, Germany. Your participation would be an honour for the Bertelsmann Foundation."

Furthermore, EFA Board members have previously been invited speakers and/or panel participants at national and international conferences such as:

Furthermore, if "made a big noise" refers to speaking out on issues of concern, we prefer to call that civic duty. It is the purpose of our organisation, and the expectation of our members, that we do so.

5. We reject Senator Alston's allegation that we have no interest in sensible and responsible regulation of the Internet. We believe the Government's approach to content regulation has neither of those qualities. Over the past six years EFA Board members have freely contributed a considerable amount of personal time and expert advice to inquiries concerning Internet regulation conducted by Senate Committees, the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the Department of Communications and the Attorney-General's Department. Current Board members were invited to give testimony to Senate Committees at public hearings concerning regulation of the Internet in 1997, 1998 and 1999. EFA has consistently warned that Australian Internet censorship legislation will not protect children but will unfortunately give parents unfamiliar with the Internet a false sense of security as to their children's safety. We note that Senator Harradine acknowledges this is a matter of concern, although Senator Alston will not.

6. Senator Alston's allegations as to our views on "mousetrapping" are based on either incorrect information given to him by his staff, or a misinformed guess, not on our statements. Senator Alston stated: ". . . mousetrapping is an issue. . . it is entirely appropriate to put pressure on host countries to clean up their own backyards. That is precisely what we are doing. We are not just saying that we hope that end users, parents, will block these sites. We think it is offensive, the community thinks it is offensive and the industry thinks it is offensive. Electronic frontiers do not".

We have never condoned, nor would we condone, pagejacking or mousetrapping or any other means of forcing content on persons who do not wish to view it. Senator Alston's allegation that we do not object to such practices is utterly without foundation. Furthermore, the Senator's implication that the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act is necessary to deal with such problems is demonstrably incorrect. It will not have the slightest effect in protecting children or adults from being caught in such traps. The USA FTC and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission have dealt with the recent instance using existing laws. Evidently, no new laws are necessary to deal with such problems.

7. Senator Alston's allegation that we were or are "feeding lines to that woman from the Civil Liberties Union" has no basis in fact. Presumably Professor Strossen reads Australian news reports and media releases, probably both Senator Alston's and EFA's, which are equally accessible around the world on the Internet.

8. Senator Alston states that he does "not find industry opposing [the government's] approach" and that "[t]he industry itself accepts that there should be these codes of practice and this form of regulation. We have been trying to negotiate it for the last three years with the Internet Industry Association. Their problem is that there are these maniacs - these electronic frontiers outfits - running around stirring up trouble".

We reject the allegation that we are the cause of any problem the Internet Industry Association (IIA) may have. If IIA has a problem, it apparently arises from IIA's attempts to develop a "self-regulatory" code that "the industry" supports as well as meets with the approval of the Government. Only 60 of Australia's 700 Internet Service Providers are currently members of the IIA according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman as reported by Fairfax I.T. News on 5 October 1999.

We also reject Senator Alston's allegation that we are not "responsible players". The persons Senator Alston quotes as not opposing the government's approach are generally persons outside Australia who will not be affected by the legislation. Silicon Valley stands to gain as Australians and their businesses move offshore. In addition, persons such as the USA CEO of Lotus are computer software developers, not obvious members of the "Internet industry". Moreover, APC Newswire reported on 7 October 1999 that Bryan Simmons, Lotus vice-president of worldwide corporate communications, said that comments by the CEO of Lotus "were meant only to communicate deference to the government's sphere of sovereignty, not support of any government's particular policies". Yahoo have previously denied supporting the legislation. With regard to Senator Alston's reference to a second press release by The National Australia Bank, Arnold Bloch Leibler and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu indicating that they are "happy with the current legislative framework", APC Newswire also reported that "A spokesperson for the group said the second press release had not expressed support for the legislation, but for the Internet Industry Association's (IIA) latest draft code of the Internet Industry Code of Practice". In fact no industry group supports the legislation except the IIA, and its endorsement is conditional upon its Code being accepted.

9. Senator Alston states that "seventy-four per cent of Australian respondents [to the Bertelsmann survey] said that the courts and legal authorities, politicians and other agencies all have a part to play in the appropriate supervision and selection of Internet content" and "That is why I find it fascinating that somehow there is this notion that the community is opposed to what we are doing. They certainly are not."

Senator Alston's reference to seventy-four percent of Australian respondents is incorrect. As multiple responses were allowed to the question, the only accurate figures that can be taken from Table 13 of the report are each of the individual percentages. Nevertheless, Senator Alston or his staff have added some individual figures: 9 per cent believe that politicians have a role to play, 26 per cent - courts and legal authorities, 39 per cent - other agencies, to find a total of 74 per cent. However, 52 percent believe Internet users themselves are best able to control unwanted content. Adding the figures from different responses makes them meaningless; it wrongly implies that 220% per cent of Australian respondents have an opinion.

10. Senator Alston goes on to say "where is this concern, apart from those maniacs I mentioned earlier?"

As stated above, the Senator's allegations as to our mental stability are groundless. Senator Alston does not appear willing to listen to the widely expressed concerns. It is a well-known fact that the Senator's advertised email address has returned messages unopened to citizens attempting to make their concerns known. Senators and/or their staff from various political parties have advised constituents that they received an inordinate amount of email expressing concern, a considerable majority of the 100 submissions to the Senate Select Committee inquiry opposed the government's approach, a petition signed by 12,140 persons was tabled in the Senate on 30 June 1999, some 50 pages of comments expressing concern were received in response to a survey conducted by The Age, the list could go on. It is not that Senator Alston is unaware of the wide concern expressed. It is that Senator Alston chooses to disregard such concerns and exercise his Parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech in an irresponsible manner to mislabel persons expressing concern as "maniacs".

In summary, Senator Alston's allegations as to our characters, views and intent are incorrect, unjustified and utterly without foundation. Despite his attempts to malign us, we intend to continue to make the "big noise" that Senator Alston obviously finds discomforting until such time as the government's approach becomes, in our opinion, reasonably and appropriately adapted to serve a legitimate end.

We tender the above in good faith and request that our response be incorporated in the parliamentary record.

Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris Llb, AACS
Chair, Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.
on behalf of the Board members and staff of Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.

   Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital Territory) (4.14 p.m.) - I would also like to speak to this motion. In doing so, I remind senators of the context in which this privileges report was provoked. Senator Alston, whose comments were the subject of this report, took great liberties with his facts and his use of other parties in the context of the debate as he presented the issues in this chamber. This report contains a comprehensive response from Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc. provided by Mr Kimberley Heitman, the chair of that organisation.

As those in this place can see, it is a lengthy response, because Senator Alston continually cast appalling aspersions on this organisation in his rather flimsy defence of the issue at hand. I would like to read the summary of the words in the response from Mr Kimberley Heitman of EFA. It reads:

This report traverses a range of clauses which go to every allegation and aspersion that Senator Alston has cast on this organisation, which diligently sought to express a view of a large number of members of the Australian community in response to the government's Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999.

As a honourable senators would know, this is an issue of ongoing public debate and the Electronic Frontiers Australia organisation will no doubt continue their diligent work in bringing the facts to the forefront of that public debate. They will do what is within their capability to defend themselves in the face of continual abuse by a minister who is obviously far more concerned with trying to drag people's names into this debate and diminishing the debate by personal attacks rather than sticking to the fundamental issues that are so worthy of a public airing and a comprehensive discussion, both in this arena and in the public area generally.

I commend this report from the Senate Committee of Privileges. I ask that all senators take the time to read it so that the Electronic Frontiers Australia organisation is fairly represented in its response to Senator Alston's appalling treatment of them.

Question resolved in the affirmative.