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?

Support EFA


  1. Bravo mate! At times it seems like only a select few of us understand the idiocy of what Conroy and Labor are actually proposing and planning to do with this policy. If we could actually sit the minister down and get him to explain himself, this is exactly what he'd do. Meaningless rhetoric and regurgitated dribble. Oh and a few soundbites like "child porn" and "EFA misleading the public" for good measure.

    It becomes increasingly obvious as time wears on that Conroy has no understanding of the internet he supposedly is meant to represent federally. The sooner the Australian public in general understand this, the sooner we can drop this pathetic and moronic policy for good and make sure our country stays focused on the future, instead of relapsing into the 1950s.

    Keep up the good work EFA! Don't let the bastard(s) win!

    Comment by TJDW on 24 March 2010 at 22:35
  2. This is a cracker. Twice as funny due to irony.

    Conroy has no idea.

    Comment by Brad McGinn on 25 March 2010 at 18:59
  3. There is nothing funny in Internet censorship. It is an attack on our liberty. I usually do not get involved in politics but my threshold has been exceeded.

    My proposal:

    Create a sign-up list for people who promise not to vote for ALP (and not to leak votes on preferences) in the next federal elections because of the introduction of the Internet filter.

    Rationale and details:

    If we want to fight child pornography on the Internet we simply should increase the probability of catching perverts using the Internet to commit the crime. More money should be spent on policing the behaviour of people contributing to the abuse not on blocking the free flow of information. There is also nothing wrong in enabling parents to better control what their children do on-line (in my opinion this is one of parenting duties - not necessarily blocking sites but controlling the on-line behaviour). However I think that the whole story about the filter is not about family values.

    As an IT professional I simply don't understand why people think that filtering can effectively block undesired content unless draconian measures are put in place to punish anybody who tries to bypass the filter (including jailing the opponents of censorship like in communist China). Otherwise people who want to access the material deemed to be illegal will use encrypted proxies, peer-to-peer networks and VPNs terminated overseas. This has been proven by the test run at Senator Conroy's request. Even filtering of unencrypted peer-to-peer networks seems to be very problematic.

    This is all about making a political statement. In my opinion Senator Conroy and his supporters (he would not be able to run the campaign without the tacit support of Kevin Rudd) want to convince Christian swing voters to vote for ALP rather than for the Coalition. Apparently if the questions of the survey are crafted "properly" there is enough support for blocking the "illegal contents" in Australia

    So why should we bother fighting this proposal if it has some popular support but from technical point of view this is just an unworkable political stunt? Because introducing an official mandatory Internet filter (even very easy to bypass) in a democratic country makes a precedence. The next step will be to criminalise attempts to circumvent the filter. It is our freedom of speech and freedom to get access to information what the whole game is about. Nobody knows which contents will be banned on top of the child porn in a few years time - today it may be a profoundly boring book about euthanasia or anti-abortion stuff. But tomorrow if there is a suitable injunction then not disclosing the Intellectual Property of the Church of Scientology may be enforced with the filter. A story about a corporation polluting a poor African country may be blocked (there was a super-injunction in the UK). It may well be news about Dalai Lama what is blocked if the Chinese Embassy kindly asks Senator Conroy to do something to "improve the relations". Or it may be a dumb racist website advocating going after people like me who speak with a thick accent... The infrastructure to muzzle the criticism and dissent will be right in place. Then it is just a matter of feature creep...

    I was born in Poland in the late 1960-ties so I remember perfectly well how censorship worked in the 1980-ties. Mass media was just a tool of communist propaganda even if anyone knew that the system was crumbling. We had limited access to illegal anti-communist books either printed locally or smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain. BTW a similar proposal to block illegal gambling websites has been recently thrown away by the Prime Minister of Poland for the reasons stated above. At least he remembers what the word censorship means... The defunct books censorship system in place in Australia is easy to circumvent.

    The arrival of the Internet changed the rules of the game - even in oppressive countries like Iran or China some flow of information deemed to be "illegal" is still possible. But repeated attempts to put the genie back to the bottle have been made since then. The latest conflict between Google and the Chinese government is the best example of the dynamics. Why is Australia being placed on the same side as China? Not in my name and I haven't voted for that, dear Kevin.

    If Senator Conroy is not educated about the history of Europe written with blood of millions innocent people murdered by Hitler and Stalin - shame on him. These tyrants cemented power because they managed to muzzle their critics first before slowly getting rid of them. Enabling criticism and dissent has a small price tag attached - rubbish pseudo-information and toxic contents has to be tolerated as well. Not blocking toxic contents doesn't equal to not punishing people advocating or committing crime. Senator Conroy seems to not care at all about these irrelevant ideas like "freedom of speech" he just wants to do something cheap about the perverts looking for child porn. Senator Conroy only cares about his own limited understanding of what is good and what is bad (and he wants to decide for all of us). He is not interested in understanding the direct and indirect political consequences of his actions. In my opinion he is unfit to be a minister in the Australian government because of these limitations.

    In my opinion the only way to derail the idea of introducing the mandatory ISP-level Internet filter is by showing that marginal support to the Labor party will decrease rather than increase if the filter is imposed. We need to hit Senator Conroy hard where it will hurt him the most. (I don't believe that hacking government websites or other stunts will reduce his zeal).

    If Kevin Rudd is confronted with a list of people who promise not to vote for ALP (and promise not to leak votes to that party in preferences) because of the introduction of the filter - he may think twice and pull Senator Conroy into line even if his own surveys showed previously that these marginal voters (like me) can be safely ignored in the pursuit of the votes of Christian conservatives.

    The peaceful protest may easily gain momentum and change the real social dynamics because:
    1. It does not require a lot of effort to participate.
    2. The cost of running the campaign is low. The Internet form needs to be designed in a smart way so that the integrity of data cannot be easily compromised.
    3. People who sign up to the list will reinforce their views and are quite unlikely to renegade on their promise. They may get psychologically involved and introduce more people to the campaign.
    4. If not only ALP swing-voters (but for example staunch Green or Liberal supporters) join the list - this is even better. More people will be there and the snowball effect is possible.

    It will be my honour to put my name on the protest list.

    Comment by Adam Kaczynski on 27 March 2010 at 13:47
  4. I agree with establishing a forum where people report that they will not vote Labor SOLELY due to the Internet filtering issue.

    The Filter itself is a sham. It will not work. If anythnig it will drive these procurers of trsh uderground. What is needed is a more open internet and more police in the cyber units to catch these perverts.

    But far be it for the govt to spend money on something the people want, like more police....

    Comment by Jason on 29 March 2010 at 20:42
  5. Where is the 'like' button? :)

    Comment by Jon on 29 March 2010 at 21:52
  6. Why not a facebook group? Get a

    "I am not voting Labour or assigning preferences in Election2010 due to their Internet Filtering Policy" Group going.

    Then point this group out to Mr KRudd. I'll join.

    Spending millions of dollars of MY money on something that DOES NOT and has been PROVEN NOT TO work. Not if I can help it.

    Comment by Jeff on 30 March 2010 at 00:24