Update : The Minister followed up his attacks today, see below.

During yesterday's Question Time, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy again faced questions about the Rudd Government's highly unpopular push to introduce mandatory, nationwide internet censorship. In his answer, the Minister accused this organisation of misleading the public and international organisations. We relish the opportunity to respond and set the record straight.

The minister was asked by Senator Boyce about the reaction of international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, who have written an open letter to the Prime Minister and recently added Australia to a watch list of countries with worrying internet censorship trends.[1]

Senator Conroy, in his answer, asserted that RWB were simply misled and continued:

Senator Conroy: What we have announced is perfectly clear. Anyone in this chamber or anyone who talks to Reporters Without Borders who tries to suggest that anything other than material included in the RC classification is subject to the filter is misleading all Australians. Let me be very clear: the material under the RC classification is material like child pornography, pro-rape websites and pro-bestiality websites— material of that nature. You cannot buy it on DVD and you cannot buy it a book store.

RWB have not been misled by EFA or anybody else. (In any case, they have not had a special briefing from us.) Neither they nor EFA are suggesting that the scope of the filter is broader than what is proposed, or that the Minister is hoping to use it to block dissenting political speech. Australia has not been placed on the "Internet enemies" list with Iran or China, but has been flagged as a country of concern. That concern is simply this: That a tolerant and liberal democracy such as Australia is taking the first steps down a path of secretive and automated censorship of the Internet. Reporters Without Borders are not alone in appreciating the enormous potential of the internet in bolstering freedom of expression, a freedom under assault in many countries around the world. This struggle has recently been fully embraced by the U.S. Government. The policy being championed by Senator Conroy is exactly counter to the ideals of complete openness that are being championed by these other entities.

EFA understands very well that the filter will be targeting RC - Refused Classification - material. Asserting this does not dispel our concerns nor those of many other organisations and individuals. As the Minister likes to point out, a subset of RC content is universally unwelcome, such as the illegal (child pornography) or that depicting bestiality or extreme sexual violence. However, at the edges of the RC category lies much more controversial material. Euthanasia, information on safe drug use, and adult material depicting particular fetishes would all certainly be blocked.

Setting aside questions of the filter's effectiveness, other concerns include the opaque and undemocratic nature of a secret blacklist not open to public scrutiny, and the virtual inevitability of an expansion of the list's scope by this or a future government. EFA has never maintained that the Government intends to use the filter to stifle political debate. The fact remains that, although the filter is designed with a different purpose in mind, what we are going to get is a mandatory and secret system that could one day be used for that purpose. It is this fact that concerns Reporters Without Borders, and concerns many Australians as well.

There is a widespread impression that the Minister, in lieu of tackling the issues, has sought to frame the debate in terms of those who want to do something about child pornography, and those who don't care enough about the problem. This is something EFA has indeed taken issue with in the past. Senator Boyce followed up her question by asking:

Senator Boyce: Isn’t Reporters Without Borders right when it states, ‘Even though a true national debate on the subject is needed, Senator Conroy has made such a discussion very problematic by branding his critics as child pornography advocates’?

The Minister responded:

Senator Conroy: Once again the material that has been supplied to Reporters Without Borders comes from Electronic Frontiers Australia, who have been challenged publicly on a number of occasions to produce a quote where I have ever said that.

It should go without saying that RWB have not been coached by us or approached us for comment on this particular issue; they have come to that conclusion on their own. In any case, here are two occasions on which the Minister is on record wielding the spectre of child pornography to deflect the issue.

Firstly, in one of the first public pronouncements of the policy, the Minister stated:

If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.[2]

On another occasion, when answering a question on the filter put to him by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam during a Senate Estimates hearing, the Minister dodged the question using this device:

Senator Ludlam – Just let me finish. In terms of the countries that you have just listed for me, it is mandatory or is it an opt-in system that, for example, concerned parents could take advantage of?

Senator Conroy – Illegal material is illegal material. Child pornography is child pornography. I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography.[3]

We maintain that these remarks do not reflect well on Senator Conroy. Nobody, including EFA, have ever argued that the filter is a bad idea because child pornography is not worth combating. Our argument is and has always been that the filter will be ineffective in doing so yet comes at enormous cost. To rail against "people" for equating "freedom of speech with watching child pornography" is simply a cheap rhetorical trick. We trust that with legislation imminent, we can move past such distractions.

Senator Conroy minced no words in singling out EFA and criticising our campaign against his policy, saying that "Electronic Frontiers Australia have run one of the most disgraceful misinformation campaigns and have misled Australians." We are aggressive in educating the public on the drawbacks of this and other policies that threaten our online freedoms, but take great pains to provide factual information and analysis to the Australian public. If we have erred in any particular instance, then we welcome a correction. That said, we have carefully considered the legalities and technical issues surrounding the policy and unreservedly stand by our assessment. It will achieve nothing for parents and police, it will cost enormous amounts of money, and presents a real threat to our freedom of speech. For the Government's part, we have heard many  frightening statements about internet bestiality, but are still awaiting a solid defence of this policy that references any evidence, study, or reputable expert that demonstrates this filter will help Australian children. We challenge the Minister to produce such evidence.

For our part, EFA intends, as always, to stick to the facts. The many flaws of this policy require no exaggeration.

Update: Today in question time the Minister also took the opportunity to further the attacks on EFA and its board, naming myself (Colin Jacobs), Chair Nicolas Suzor and board member Geordie Guy as those chiefly responsible for a misinformation campaign being waged against the Australian public.

The specific charges stem from an article written by me for Crikey reporting on Reporters Without Borders open letter to the Prime Minister, and our supposed assertion that no child pornography is traded on the open internet. These issues have been addressed comprehensively elsewhere. Our argument is not that there is no child pornography on the web, but that the blacklist filter will not be effective in stopping it. As for supposed inaccuracies being promulgated about the scope of the blacklist, this is largely due to a lack of policy clarity from the Government; at its inception, the filter was to implement the current ACMA blacklist (which is much broader than RC, including R-18+ content), and it has only gradually changed. A year ago, the Minister was still referring to "almost exclusively RC" before finally settling on RC. Given the lack of a solid policy document, it's no surprise there has been confusion amongst the public and international organisations. Nevertheless, since this change we have been clear in our message - RC is broader than the Minister likes to let on, and he cannot guarantee that the scope will never increase any more than he can guarantee he will remain Minister forever.

[1] The report reads: "Among the countries “under surveillance” are several democracies: Australia, because of the upcoming implementation of a highly developed Internet filtering system, and South Korea, where draconian laws are creating too many specific restrictions on Web users by challenging their anonymity and promoting self-censorship."

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