Communications Minister Stephen Conroy went in to bat for the Labor Government's mandatory internet filter again, reaffirming the commitment to the unpopular policy. Nothing has changed since earlier debates; the filter still has the same problems it has always had - it's useless, unworkable and expensive. It still won't help anybody.
The latest line, that the Minister trusts "to the common sense of the Australian public with respect to the classification system", is a little strange. Censorship policy is complicated, especially when it comes to the internet, and it's not clear how pursuing this scheme is somehow leaving the whole matter up to the folksy wisdom of the Australian people. Of course, if you ask people whether they want something done about child pornography (for instance) they are likely to say yes. Who wouldn't? But the more they learn about this particular "something", the more skeptical they become.
Last year, several large ISPs including Telstra, Optus and Primus announced they were voluntarily pursuing a blacklist filter against child pornography. It's disappointing, and a little surprising, that the Government did not use this announcement as a good pretext to put the filter policy out to pasture. The reason is, of course, that they don't believe it goes far enough. The Minister at one point in his remarks at the Estimates hearings commented that: "If you believe a voluntary filter should block child abuse, how would you justify having a voluntary filter not block a bestiality or pro-rape website?" This language will be very familiar to those of you who have followed Senator Conroy's role in the debate.
If, like us, you believe that the word "bestiality" does not automatically end a discussion, you can probably think of a few answers to that question. One reason might be that those forms of content, unsavoury as they may be, are not criminal to possess. Another reason might be that child pornography is defined in the statute books, but something like "pro-rape" is quite vague. Perhaps one calls to mind a website that encourages, and even provides instruction on, attacks against women - something none of us would tolerate. What about a website set up by fetishists to explore power games amongst consenting adults? It might not be popular, but is it a menace to public decency?
Playing the bestiality and "pro-rape" cards also begs some important questions. How many bestiality sites are out there? Is there any evidence that Australians are seeking them out? Would those who do be stopped by the filter? If they aren't stopped, will they be harmed? Of course, these questions are not answered by the Minister. If they were, the answers probably wouldn't add up to a public emergency that could be solved by the proposed blacklist.
We must be resigned to the fact that as long as Senator Conroy remains at the helm of internet policy, we're going to be hearing about this great Bestiality Shield. Luckily, there are others in Parliament who have weighed the policy more thoughtfully, and for now it appears the filter would be unlikely to pass through even the lower house. We still remain resolutely opposed to internet censorship, especially the Labor plan, and we'll work to make sure that those other policymakers don't fall for the moral panic line.