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.
Also check out Gizmodo Australia's "Fight the Filter" coverage this week.
Edited to add: The Department's media release can be found here.