Mark Newton imagines a meeting between Senator Stephen Conroy and Electronic Frontiers Australia in his post as part of our series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA's 2010 Fundraising Campaign ...

So it seems that our Broadband Prevention Minister had a bit of a hissy fit last week.

Using parliamentary privilege, he launched what EFA has called a "cowardly" attack on Colin Jacobs, Nic Suzor and Geordie Guy.

Of course, this isn't the first time the good Minister has launched embarrassingly screechy attacks on his critics, so it's difficult to describe them as "remarkable." I can only sit on the sidelines and giggle quietly at the incongruity of a guy as twisty-turny as Conroy lobbing missiles at voters for not being straightforward.

Temper-tantrum, much?

Colin Jacobs' response reminded everybody that Conroy has welcomed the ACL into his office, but thus far refused to meet with EFA. Jacobs declared himself "open to having a discussion with the Communications Minister, as long as he can keep the vitriol to a minimum."

I think I can spare Mr. Jacobs the trouble. As Mike Meloni pointed out within days of Conroy's ACMA censoring links to an anti-abortion site last year, you can tell what the Minister is going to say next by reading his press releases and speeches to see what he said last time.

Conroy has displayed extraordinary message-discipline, to the extent that virtually everything he says is a rehash of something he's said earlier. He even regularly flouts Senate standing orders by reading prepared speeches from his laptop during Question Time, lest he inadvertently go off-message (leading to last week's embarrassing moment in the Senate where Senator Joyce asked a question about the Henry Tax Review and Conroy, without realizing, started reading an answer about Paid Parental Leave).

So here's how I think a meeting between Senator Conroy and Colin Jacobs would run:

Colin Jacobs: Minister, throughout the last two and a half years one thing you've absolutely refused to do is to tell us what you hope to achieve.

Senator Conroy: The Rudd Government's $125.8 million cyber-safety plan includes a comprehensive range of measures such as $49m for an additional 91 AFP online child protection officers, $11.3 million for the Commonwealth DPP, education and information, ISP filtering..."

CJ: Let me stop you there, Minister. You've said $49m for 91 AFP OCSET officers, but the coalition had already budgeted $51.8m for 90 of them coming on-stream a year earlier than your plan. By the same logic that you're using against Tony Abbott right now, doesn't that mean you've cut nearly $3m from the AFP's budget, and by using less money to hire more police you're expecting them to take a paycut?

Conroy: ISP filtering is no silver bullet and the Government is implementing a comprehensive set of measures to combat online threats.

CJ: Sure, but you're not funding them. You've been in Government for two and a half years and you've not spent a single cent extra on the police, and you've spent all your time banging-on about censorship without protecting a single child, without removing a single item of child abuse material from the internet, without bringing a single child abuser to justice. Don't you think you're kinda missing the point?

Conroy: The Rudd Government has committed to a comprehensive and evidence-based approach to cyber-safety policies and it is important that this is informed by a sound understanding of the risks facing children in the online environment.

CJ: Evidence? Seriously? Your own Enex trials proved conclusively that all of the ISP censorship options in front of you are as useless as chocolate teapots, since when have you cared about evidence?

Conroy: The report into the pilot trial of ISP-level filtering demonstrates that blocking RC-rated material can be done with 100% accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed.

CJ: Sure, but only if the customers are connected at 2005 broadband speeds, and only if high-traffic sites like Youtube choose to censor themselves. The fact that you say something like that just means you don't know enough about the Internet to understand your own report, doesn't it?

Conroy: NBN Co has chosen the first release sites based on a range of criteria such as demographics, climate, existing infrastructure and terrain, to ensure the physical roll out of the NBN is as smooth as possible.

CJ: Eh?

Conroy: I had no answer for that question, so I answered a different one.

CJ: Look, Minister, this is clearly a waste of time. I know you use the Internet, but you don't seem to know anything about it. It's like trying to talk about the hazards of overuse of phosphate fertilizers with a potplant. Do you have anything at all that you can say to defend this ridiculous policy?

Conroy: I was wondering if I could get the questions without being accused of being the Great Wall of China.

CJ: Minister, please get out of my office.

Probably isn't going to end well, is it?

Tuesday's release of the submissions into accountability and transparency of Conroy's List confirmed a quiet suspicion of mine, which is that respondents appear to be far more educated about the nature of Refused Classification than our political masters and religious betters. Apart from expressing disdain for the Rudd censorwall, a significant number of submissions schooled the Minister about RC content such as fan fictionsafer sex informationwikipedia pages, and various online material which isn't RC offline. Others pointed out that it was only a couple of years ago that the ALP was having a cry about the way Howard had stacked the Classification Board with "Liberal political stooges rather than true representatives of the community," and that perhaps it's unwise to trust them.

The Minister can stir himself into a panicky frenzy about child porn and bestiality 'til the cows come home, but he can't escape the fact that one of the unintended consequences of his pursuit of this policy is to spark public debate about the legitimacy of our wretchedly messed-up classification system from first principles.

Thanks for that, Steve!

Meanwhile, it's clear that the Government wants to do something about ensuring safety for children, they just don't know enough about the Internet to have any idea where to start.

If I can make a small suggestion: I hear Minister Garrett has a lot of spare pink batts going cheap. I reckon for $44.5m you could buy enough to wrap every child in Australia in cotton wool. Maybe even some of the adults, too. Kevin'll go for that, don't you think?

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