Internet censorship remains part of Conroy’s agenda
IT was ironic that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced the postponement of his internet filtering legislation via an adviser last week. Advice was not something he was fond of taking. Sensing a voter backlash on the legislation, which was supposed to be introduced into the parliament before the federal election, Rudd and Conroy are banking on removing it as an election issue. But will they?
If Conroy had introduced the legislation before the election, he might have risked the ire of the Greens and Electronic Frontiers Australia, but at least it would have been done and dusted. It would then be up to other political parties to say that they would try to overturn it, a much more difficult task. Now the election could be turned in part into a referendum on the issue.
Labor’s private polling on internet filtering has consistently shown that a large number of computer-illiterate mums and dads are worried about what their kids can access online. They want Conroy to make it safer for them. This is the reason he has continued to withstand so much virulent criticism from those who do not live in a nuclear family and who do not feel threatened by the internet. They include people who use it for business, those who use it for pleasure and those, especially in their 20s and30s, who use it as a way of social networking.
On this point Conroy has seriously misunderstood the fears that business has about how a national internet filter could degrade our already under-performing online environment. Not just the technical performance of internet service providers, which will have to scan all their traffic all the time, but whether he will blacklist international business sites such as Amazon and YouTube that sell or offer a host of material that would be refused classification (RC) under Australia’s proposed prudish censorship laws.
He also has miscalculated the number of people who use the internet to seek out sexual material. At last count there were 238 million adult sex sites on the internet and millions of searches every day are for sexually related material. Does Conroy think all these people live in Upper Volta or New Zealand? His insistence on calling them pedophiles and perverts has only hardened their resolve to bring him down. Sexual pleasure on the internet is a personal freedom that many adults will not give up lightly.
The networking and social sites are the new pubs and clubs for generations X and Y, and they resent government intrusion into these areas like a Digger would resent government monitoring the local RSL. Conroy is oblivious to these concerns and, privately, very angry these people won’t see his point of view. It’s a Mexican stand-off where Conroy has put his revolver back into its holster but it’s still cocked and loaded.
There is every chance a post-election internet filter will be more censorious than the proposed pre-election one. The Rudd government has been quietly increasing controls on sexual material coming into the country through other means. Anyone coming back to Australia from an overseas trip now has a new question on their incoming passenger card. It asks if you have any pornography in your suitcase. They’ve also raised the bar for those who bring in more than 25 DVDs that would be refused classification such as a DIY euthanasia film or an adult film where a couple spanks each other; both of which are available on Amazon and YouTube. Yet you can get five years’ jail for them now.
Australian Christian Lobby chief executive Jim Wallace has boasted publicly of having numerous meetings with Conroy about banning sexual imagery in Australian homes and Rudd addressed the group’s national conference last November. With another four years to run after an election win, Conroy could go back to the original plan he floated, which was to blacklist the X18+ classification entirely.
Conroy changed his mind about this one night on SBS television’s Insight program in March last year when challenged by Australian Sex Party leader Fiona Patten. She pointed out X18+ material was legal in Australia and that filtering legal adult erotica would be the thin end of the wedge.
Suddenly, he changed his policy to “we will only ban material that is refused classification and already illegal”.
Curiously, Conroy fronted Patten in the green room after the show and regaled her with “Why didn’t you just call me about this? We could have sorted it out. You didn’t have to set up a political party against us.”
The threat of a new party focused on the internet filter didn’t deter him, though. Not even blinding inconsistencies and duplications such as the fact the new blacklist of illegal sites will sit on top of an existing blacklist that has different parameters. Under the present Broadcasting Services Act introduced by the Howard government in 1999, the Australian Communications and Media Authority maintains a blacklist of prohibited content that includes X18+ content, R18+ content that does not have a restricted access system and content that is even classified MA15+ and provided by a mobile premium service. This list is secret to the public and supplied to filtering companies.
According to Conroy, this list will remain alongside the new one, which will blacklist only refused classification material. Why?
Unbelievably, the Coalition is edging closer to supporting this farce unless it degrades the network or can be proven to be technically obstructive. Coalition communications spokesman Tony Smith is beginning to shift from John Howard’s old policy, which was that the millions of dollars that government spent on providing free end-user software to families should be put to use by parents without having to duplicate the whole thing at ISP level.
Through senator Scott Ludlam, the Greens appear to be leading the charge in the parliament against the filter. But when you consider they preselected the architect of Conroy’s internet filter, Clive Hamilton, at last December’s Higgins by-election, you have to wonder about their commitment. There are plenty of rumours going around that they will do it again. Preselecting Hamilton for a marginal Victorian reps seat would be a huge mistake for the Greens and would undermine much of Ludlam’s efforts to date. And that pretty much leaves the Sex Party, a political party that was founded on the issue of internet filtering, to lead the charge.
Conroy may think he has won the battle but this war is far from over. In the green room no one can hear you scream.
Published in The Weekend Australian, 8-9 May, 2010