Conroy faces the filtering music on Q&A

Australia’s frustration with the Government’s push for mandatory Internet filtering is coming to a head. Last night Communications Minister Stephen Conroy appeared on ABC’s Q&A and faced a mountain of questions from the Australian public on this scheme – far and away the most questions the ABC have received on any subject. By starving the public of information on the policy and dismissing criticisms with sound bytes about children, the Minister has angered many people, but last night Tony Jones put him in the hot seat and he had to answer some real questions.

The Minister certainly made a spirited defence of the policy. He maintained the scheme was not to target political content, would only block extreme websites such as those “promoting incest”, and distanced himself from the current ACMA blacklist. Arguments were made by the Minister (and his ally on the topic, Andrew Bolt) about the hatefulness of such extreme material and the consistency with other forms of media in blocking illegal/RC material. At first glance, it might seem very reasonable (references to the Russian mob aside).

But many fundamental issues were not touched on. For instance, how can ACMA or the classification make a meaningful attempt to classify and censor the many billions of web pages in existence? Surely there can be no suggestion from the Minister that the Australian Government can find and classify all RC pages on the Internet. Indeed, it is probably unthinkable that they can find even one percent of such material. What value, then, lies in such a scattershot approach?

Another point of confusion is the actual purpose of the policy. Is it to stop kids stumbling upon inappropriate material? Is it to stop the the trade of illegal material? Or is it to stop adults from viewing material that the Government thinks is inappropriate for them? At one point in the show, Senator Conroy went from a defence of the RC-only blacklist to musing about how parents could be given a level of control over filtering criteria. This may give parents the false impression that the filter is designed as a tool for parental oversight of their children’s activity online. This is clearly not the case. A list of RC content can only be targeted at adults who purposefully seek out such material. If anybody is suggesting that children are constantly encountering such material, we are yet to see any evidence for it. Instead, it seems as if child safety has become something of a convenient red herring in this whole debate.

The Minister also avoided any discussion on the costs of the system. The monetary costs are very significant, in the tens of millions at least. Whether we trust the Government’s motivation now or not, the mandatory filter represents a very significant expansion in censorship powers, and should not be granted lightly. It’s hard to imagine Senator Conroy standing up in Parliament and supporting the previous Government in taking this power for themselves. There is also a big opportunity cost here – the funds and time being spent on this policy could be much better allocated on real initiatives in the field of child welfare or in securing better networks for the country. In terms of delivery of a service to the public, the filter is a worthless distraction.

Minister indicated that the filter would only target content that was refused classification – in his words things like “sites promoting rape”. This is a change from the existing system, where the blacklist has a much broader scope. Many subtleties still need to be discussed here, however. Most RC material is not illegal to view or distribute, and not all of it is sexual in nature. It’s easy to imagine something disgusting that would offend the vast majority of the population, but the devil is in the details, and many controversial sites at the edges of the criteria will test the system. Euthanasia, abortion and sites discussing terrorism or crime could easily be censored even under an RC-only regime. It’s hard to sanction this when the decisions are made in secret. The “technical error” that the Minister claimed resulted in a PG-rated page of Bill Henson photographs being blacklisted is clearly going to happen again in a system that lacks public oversight.

Contrary to the Minister’s assertion, the ACMA blacklist is still accruing new sites, as verified by many including Somebody Think of the Children’s Michael Meloni who submitted a site to ACMA and found it on the leaked Wikileaks list.

On a positive note, the Minister admitted there was “no silver bullet” in combating illegal material. He’s right. What he is yet to admit is that, in fact, the ALP’s mandatory filter will accomplish nothing at all in this fight. Everyone can agree that a website depicting incest is distasteful or hateful. However, the debate on this policy shouldn’t end here. In order to block access to a tiny handful of such sites – a block that is easily circumvented – we have to allow a massive Government intrusion into the nation’s networks and set a dangerous precedent in secret censorship. Weighing these costs against the supposed benefits isn’t advocating a “laissez-faire” morality – it is the epitome of responsible citizenship.

Watch the episode here.