Internet issues appear to have finally gotten some oxygen in this election. The National Broadband Network and the Coalition's alternative broadband plan have gotten a lot of coverage in recent days. We'll have a breakdown of the two policies for you in our next update.

Let's turn, instead, to the issue of "cyber-safety", the banner under which the Government has been pushing its mandatory ISP filtering policy. If you follow the news, you might have heard that the Government first delayed the plan for a year in order to conduct a review of the "Refused Classification" rating. Since then, the Coalition have come forward and stated they will not support mandatory censorship and would vote against it even if they remain in opposition after the election. This means that the filter is very unlikely to pass through the Senate without some drastic modifications.

It's still Government policy, however, and they are sticking by it. See "Is the filter truly dead?" for some more information.

The Coalition's cyber-safety policy is now available. They are promising $100.4m over four years for a variety of initiatives aimed at protecting children online.

The Liberal party has a pretty shoddy track record when it comes to online civil liberties. One of EFA's biggest battles to date was against an onerous censorship plan pursued by the Howard Government, that - fortunately - was technically unrealisable. What we ended up with is the current system, whereby R-rated web pages can't be hosted in Australia but for the risk of a hefty daily fine and ACMA prepares a secret blacklist of "prohibited" pages. Fortunately, neither this restriction nor the blacklist have much affect on our daily use of the net to communicate, and so amount to little more than nagging affront to common sense and a considerable waste of money.

By knocking back Labor's filter, and proposing a policy focussed on options within the home, the Coalition appear to have turned over a new leaf. The key planks of their proposal are:

  • $60m for home PC filters
  • $30m for Cyber-safety outreach
  • $10.5m to educate and "empower" principals
  • A Ministerial advisory committee on social networking

Although it's hard to get too excited about this use of taxpayers' money, it appears the Coalition have abandoned the heavy-handed censorship approach of the past.

The first two proposals, to fund the availability of PC-based filters and get the message out to children, raise no civil liberties issues. We have long maintained that giving parents a choice of what is appropriate for their own homes is vastly superior to a one-size-fits-all approach that erodes our civil liberties while giving parents nothing but a false sense of security. Although research shows that only a minority of parents will actually want filters, offering them the choice seems a much more commonsensical approach.

The third proposal is aimed squarely at cyber-bullying, one of the real risks children face online. Just like airline safety, cyber-safety is prone to having its risks exaggerated. A literature review conducted about Australian cyber-safety issues concluded that "prevalence rates of less than 10% in Australia have been reported," a figure lower than in similar countries overseas. More importantly, any detailed research into the subject makes it plain that cyber-bullying is just one facet of bullying in general; it's the same kids being bullied by the same peers both offline and online. Unlike politicians who grew up in the 60s, young people today don't see a distinction between their online lives and their lives. Therefore, a dedicated cyber-bullying policy is probably doomed to fail as an attempt to patch one small symptom of a larger problem.

The fourth proposal, an advisory on social networking, is not as worrying as it is silly. It's hard to imagine just what they can do; if an incident like this Facebook defacement flap come to their attention, it's hard to see the Minister being able to take any sensible (or desirable) action.

When all's said and done, compared to the Conroy Curtain the Coalition policy is somewhat of a refreshing return to common sense. Again, the most serious issues with this policy are mainly based around the underlying premise. We all agree we want children to be safe online, but before we spend $100 million on a problem, we would expect to see the problem itself well-researched and quantified. Yes, there are risks to children (and adults) when interacting with others online. The best research on the subject, however, does not paint the picture of a national emergency. A considered review of the literature, and a little common sense, might bring one to the conclusion that using the internet is in fact one of the safest and most rewarding pastimes a child could choose. Is, therefore, a $100 million response truly necessary?

The Greens are yet to formally announce their cyber-safety policy, but we understand it is imminent and will also focus on giving parents a choice at home. But with Labor still pushing for the censorwall and Family First hoping to place a levy on internet users to support net censorship, the Coalition's plan is currently looking pretty good.

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