Friday's announcement by Minister Stephen Conroy that the filter would be put on the back burner pending a review seems like good news. In the sense that Australians' net connections will remain uncensored by the Government in 2011, this is indeed something to be pleased about. The filter remains very much alive, though, and the promised review is unlikely to make much difference.

The review will be run by an as-yet-unnamed party and will investigate whether the RC category of content remains in line with community expectations. Given that the logistics of coordinating such a review with the states, and the length of time a proper review that incorporated community feedback would take, it would seem further progress on getting the filter legislation through Parliament is at least a year away.

To our great surprise, the Minister appears to have endorsed several of the best ideas received in their review of filter transparency, by agreeing to several measures (including some suggested by us [PDF])  that attempt to lessen the corrosive effects of a secret blacklist. Conroy announced that:

  • Australian site owners will be notified when their content is added to the blacklist;
  • A standard block notification will be shown, making it clear the page was deliberately blocked by the government;
  • The Classification Board, rather than ACMA, will decide on the RC status of submitted URLs;
  • An annual review of the list will be conducted.

It's good that the issues have finally got some attention, but it is important to note that nothing has really changed here as far as the value of this policy is concerned. Firstly, the filter still has no clear policy goal; it will still neither help parents nor prevent the spread of illegal material. Secondly, a secret blacklist, the scope of which could easily increase over time, is always going to be a big worry.

Perhaps one positive outcome from the announcement will be a more critical look at how classification can be applied to the internet. The Minister has gone out of his way during this debate to draw attention away from the classification of web pages and towards the nastiness of material at the extreme end of the spectrum. This talk of the Classification Board and a review of the RC category highlights what the Government is proposing: to apply a system designed for books, movies and magazines to the global internet. Since it will never be possible to review a significant number of web pages (and they would in any case be out of date by the time the decision was published), classification can never achieve anything but the waste of a few million of taxpayer funds. The Government has missed an excellent opportunity to go back to the drawing board - instead, they are fiddling around with the details of a plan that is fundamentally ill-conceived.

The surprising announcement that three of the largest ISPs are moving ahead with a voluntary filter targeted solely at child pornography also represents a missed opportunity by the Government. I have it on good authority that the industry has been suggesting such a filter to the Government for some time and have hitherto struggled to get a hearing. Now, finally, the Government has listened. But putting concerns about this industry filter aside, it's hard to understand why the Government did not use this to simply short-circuit the debate and let the compulsory filter die. What more, either practically or politically, can the government filter achieve?

Political considerations are clearly paramount here. With Friday's announcement, the filter is potentially defused as an election issue, and the Ministry can trumpet how seriously they take transparency and consultation with industry. In the meantime, nothing has changed apart from the timing. Will they eventually see the light and drop the policy mid-term if re-elected? Given the many chances they have had to back away from this bad policy and still save face, one would have to say "no". Those of us committed to an open internet for Australia had better not give up the fight just yet.

For more on this announcement, ABC's The World Today had some good coverage on Friday including the announcement, the voluntary filter, and  comment from EFA.

Also check out Gizmodo Australia's "Fight the Filter" coverage this week.

Edited to add: The Department's media release can be found here.

9 comments

  1. Conroy has avoided doing a 180 instead holding a stern line so eventually we move to negotiations versus scrapping the entire plan.

    Comment by Ubbs on 12 July 2010 at 20:27
  2. Why does the EFA persist in using Conroy's framing of the issue? This is not a plan for a "filter", it is a plan to censor the Internet, and that is what it should be called every time the EFA refers to it.

    Comment by David Jackmanson on 12 July 2010 at 21:11
  3. @David: You're right, and you'll find we normally do call it what it is - censorship. However, we have to acknowledge that it is the Government that to a large degree controls the language and the agenda here, as it's their initiative that we are reacting too. Sad, but true.

    Comment by Colin Jacobs on 12 July 2010 at 21:23
  4. Am I the only one that thinks the review of RC is potentially going to result in an even more onerous definition?

    They have no intention of dropping this terrible idea, and I have no intention of voting for them in the election. Nothing's really changed, has it?

    Comment by Stuart on 12 July 2010 at 23:45
  5. What do Australians need to do so a new Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy can be elected or ensure the filter/censorship doesn't move forward?

    Comment by Justan Tazino on 13 July 2010 at 01:13
  6. Stuart is right, Conroy (as usual) hasn't indicated what this review actually means... it could be that(most likely) he means to modify the RC not modify the filter... and could result in even more ridiculous classifications (which would hurt all other mediums too!)

    Look at the pattern of the Rud/Gil government term..
    1. Introduction of needing to declare pornagraphy in airports for staff to check (a disgusting rule that means a husband & wife's home movie would be watched by security and a crime to not declare it) -- all in the name of keeping child porn out of the country

    2. Introduction in qld of swearing to be illegal, $100 on the spot fine for s*** or f*** if heard by a police officer, regardless of the context or direction of the statement.

    3. Trying to impose this aweful internet filter

    This fascist monster must be stopped.

    Comment by Stack on 13 July 2010 at 01:25
  7. The thing that I hate the most about the mandatory internet censorship plan is that Australia regulates the internet under the Broadcasting Services Act, but in the AUSFTA the internet is specifically omitted as being a Broadcast service.

    I am interested to know if any other western democracy enforces its broadcast classification system on internet content in a manner as restrictive that Australia currently does, not including the planned expanded scope by the Government.

    I am sure the likes of Fox, Telstra, Seven, Nine, Ten etc are rubbing their hands together with glee awaiting the Government policy success.

    Comment by AJ on 13 July 2010 at 01:31
  8. "A standard block notification will be shown, making it clear the page was deliberately blocked by the government". Hopefully that "standard notification" will allow an ICMP Host Unreachable Administratively Denied. That's what applications expect when something is blocked, not success with modified content. Humans are not the only users of the web.

    Comment by Glen Turner on 13 July 2010 at 22:23
  9. @ Glen Turner

    You seriously expect the same people that brought you 'scams through the portal' to take the correct technical approach to breaking the internet's basic functionality? You have more faith than I.

    Comment by Stuart on 13 July 2010 at 22:29