Internet Filtering


I rise this afternoon to make some brief remarks on the government's proposed mandatory net filter, and it is an issue that I have raised a number of times in this parliament over a period of nearly two years. The government's proposed mandatory internet censorship scheme has been almost universally condemned. It is an inappropriate and off-target attempt to engage with a series of problems that deserve a much more serious and nuanced response. The Greens support the rights of Australian children to a safe online experience and we support the effective resourcing of law enforcement agencies to intercept and prosecute traffickers of online child pornography and other illegal material on the internet. We do not, however, support the mandatory filtering of the internet in Australia. This afternoon I would like to sketch the broad reasons for taking this position and then to propose to the government some ways forward.

Our objections to the filter fall into three key areas. Firstly, it fails the objectives that the government has stated for it. It will not do anything to protect children online. That is the first broad category of reasons and I will go into them in some detail in a moment. The second category of reasons is that it establishes the architecture for future censorship of the internet in Australia, which I think is quite dangerous. Even if we take the minister on his word that he is not trying to set up a great firewall of Australia, we cannot trust him with the actions of future governments or indeed this government down the track, and I think that is very important. The third tier of arguments revolve around the technical unworkability which this minister and this government have been hearing loud and clear from the industry and from technical professionals for many years.

In my comments on this issue over the last couple of years I have tended to rely less on the technical arguments, being somewhat less qualified to make those cases, but they have been made loud and clear by the industry holding up a red flag to the government saying, ‘Even if this did meet your policy objectives, technically it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to actually achieve what you are trying to do.' But in terms of the government's key arguments around the filter protecting the experience of children online-and on this priority at least I do not think we around this chamber will find any key disagreements-this should not be seen as an argument between competing interests of free speech and the protection of children. Both of those things are very important.

The government has never provided any evidence that the filter will have any impact on online safety, which has been defined most recently by the government as inadvertent access to child sexual abuse material. There is no research that the government has been able to provide to us. I asked three different agencies in the last round of estimates and nobody was able to quantify the degree to which inadvertent access to this kind of material actually exists. If such research exists I think it would be very interesting to see it and to put it in the public domain.

Current threats to online child safety will still exist in the event that this filter is enacted and that is very important. If the government has its way and if it is passed through this parliament none of the issues that parents grapple with, that teachers are concerned about, that child safety and protection advocates worry about will have disappeared as a result of the enactment of this filter. It will not result in a single prosecution, it will not close down a single illegal website and it will not result in the removal of a single harmful image from the internet. So let us be very clear about that.

Many child safety groups believe that the introduction of the filter may in fact foster an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude by parents and may lead to a false sense of security on the assumption that the government has done something to somehow make the online environment safer for children, which of course is not the case. The current incarnation of the filter no longer proposes to filter pornography, violent material, gambling sites, violent or sexualised advertising or any other forms of content that could be considered harmful-depending on your point of view-to children of varying ages. The filter will not be able to block that volume of material. All of those problems will still remain and will need to be grappled with.

Of course, the filter is easily circumvented by anybody with low to moderate technical literacy. Obviously, most teenagers these days fall into that category. If you are looking for illegal material you will still be able to find it. The filter will not actually be taking down these websites; they will still be there. Although we are, again, getting very mixed signals from the government, circumvention or instruction on circumvention will not necessarily be illegal.

Perhaps most importantly, a failure with respect to the key objectives-on which, I think, again, I can speak for everybody in this place; we agree that the protection of children's experience online and, for that matter, offline should be paramount-is that the kinds of material that the government frequently cites to justify this filter barely exist on the World Wide Web at all. This point has been made so many times as to be barely worth repeating. This material is largely trafficked in chat rooms, via peer-to-peer networks, over email and in other online fora, which, the minister had to acknowledge a couple of months ago, will be well beyond the reach of the filter. So we are really attacking the issue from the wrong end. Towards the end of my remarks I will come to some proposals for moving forward.

The second tier of arguments relates to the fact that under this proposal we will be installing the architecture-that is, physical blocking devices on every internet service provider in this country-which later governments could use to target a much wider variety of content. Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has obviously promised to oppose any such scope creep in the future. We have to just take those commitments for granted. But many commentators believe that the scope is already too broad and the minister cannot guarantee that he will have the numbers forever.

Four Corners ran a good piece on this matter the other night. One comment by the minister really stuck in my mind and summed up the issue of scope creep. Minister Stephen Conroy's reassurance was unintentionally, I presume, quite instructive. He said:

"If a majority of the Parliament in the future want to broaden the classification
- meaning of material caught by the filter-
well then, Australians should stand up and say ‘just a minute', and I'll be one of them."

Of course, by that time it will be too late. That is the future of this filter: a majority of a future parliament, probably under pressure of some kind of moral panic-whatever that may be-broadening the filter to include a larger scope of banned material and Stephen Conroy standing there in the minority, saying, ‘Just a minute,' shortly before losing the vote.

Once the architecture is in place, the idea that future governments will not be tempted to expand its scope is impossible to entertain. The reasons are technical, as well as political. The time for Australians to stand up is not down the track in that hypothetical vote; it is right now. People are standing up, and I will return to those thoughts in a moment.

The current black list is proposed to be supplemented by a ‘refused classification' only black list of web addresses, of which more than half are unrelated to children and include the kind of material that the minister has focused on, which most people have similar concerns about. It will include controversial films, such as Baise Moi, and publications by euthanasia support group Exit International. It has already caught an anti-abortion website with explicit images. What has caught the attention of many online civil liberties groups and other people is the fact that we are already drifting into political speak. This is not about the protection of children at all. The black list is already shrouding material which is arguably of a political nature. Whatever you may think of the opinions expressed on those sites we hope that, in a country with an open political culture such as Australia, that we will not be just hiving it off for the government to decide what we can and cannot see.

It is proposed that the black list remain secret. The other night the minister, again, acknowledged even he has difficulties with that. That is one reason, among many, why the internet is different to books and films where packages of content come in discrete packages rather than the kind of flow that we see on the internet. That accountability mechanism which we have with films and books will not exist in the online environment.

Perhaps most importantly, certainly from my point of view, the installation of a physical choke point on every internet service provider in the country, filtering against a growing secret list of material, ranging from illegal to unwanted, establishes hard-wired censorship architecture, which future governments will almost certainly be unwilling to dismantle. It should be judged not just against the current black list scope but against what future governments will do once the technology is installed and that, I think, is crucial. The proposal, being technically unachievable, is the third cluster of issues which I will not dwell on in the time that I have left, but it is in the technical literature. People from the Howard-initiated inquiry, which the government kept secret until only six or eight months ago, said it could not be done and it was dropped by the former government. They said, ‘What you are trying to do is technically unachievable.'

Just to put this in context and then I will move on to where to from here, Google and Microsoft search engine Bing logged the trillionth-that is a one followed by 12 zeros-web page address in 2008. One trillion unique addresses, with several billion added every day. Google conservatively estimates that they have logged about 0.004 per cent of the five million terabytes of data on the net. This thing is already vast and I think the proposition that you could take a list, even with a classification scheme as vague as ours-this ‘refused classification' bracket-and somehow plug everything that would be deemed to be refused classification is quite absurd.

In terms of where to from here, there are a number of other very important technical issues around the proposal to move from filtering of a static list to the kind of dynamic, intrusive filtering which the government was proposing earlier and has since dropped because they were told it was impossible. But that is where the filter will need to go if it is instituted. As the web moves from a system of static addresses to much more dynamic database-served content, that is where this minister's filter is going to need to go if it is to remain relevant-and that, I think, is somewhere that we should not countenance.

In terms of the minister's comments about people standing up and saying no if future governments proposed to increase the scope, and saying that that would be the time for Australians to stand up: the time for Australians to stand up is right now, and we are standing up. In response, the minister has spent two years vilifying anybody who criticised the proposal, accusing groups like Electronic Frontiers Australia of misinformation, and hitting back at everyone from me to Google to Reporters without Borders. And every time the government shoots the messenger, more messengers arise.

Electronic Frontiers Australia has done essential research and advocacy over the last couple of years. I congratulate them for their work despite the hostility that they have drawn from the government. For a number of years, they have laid the foundations for a much larger number of individuals and organisations who have added their voices to the campaign. I will list these briefly, particularly groups or coalitions that have come together recently, like the Safer Internet Group-the Australian Library and Information Association, Google, the Inspire Foundation, Yahoo!, the Internet Industry Association, the Internet Society of Australia, the System Administrators Guild of Australia and the Australian Council of State School Organisations. They have come out from varying perspectives and condemned this proposal.

Internationally, I have certainly taken a lot of press interest. I am presuming that the minister has as well. But certainly this filtering proposal has drawn a lot of criticism from overseas-most recently, last night from Google's head of policy and government affairs, Ross LaJeunesse, who said:
While intended to improve online safety, the filter could block access to important information online and have a broader impact than expected.
They are very concerned about other countries taking their lead from this misguided proposal in Australia.

What we propose is a three-fold strategy of education; law enforcement; and tailored, optional filtering solutions which I think will provide us with the best way of creating a safer online environment. The government established the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety. After one false start, I have managed to get on that committee, and I think it is going to do valuable work-not least in improving the net literacy of Australian parliamentarians.
There is a place for filtering-of course there is. And one of the strangest and most curious policy zigzags of the government's recent cybersafety reforms was to cancel the NetAlert free filtering software which was available to parents, claiming that there was no demand for it, but then turning around and saying that there is demand for a mandatory filter, which does not make sense to me at all.

So I think the government is ducking this debate now and saying, ‘We'll legislate after the election.' We know that they are clearing the decks of anything controversial. I would like to pay my respects to everyone who played a part in this campaign for at least getting it onto the list of unpopular items to be taken off the table before the election.

But I would like to know which way the opposition intends to vote on this. We have certainly heard very encouraging comments from various people in official and unofficial capacities. But I do not know and I do not think anybody who is following this debate knows which way they will vote when push comes to shove.

I have also held back from declaring the Greens' voting intentions on this issue in the faint hope that by the time we saw legislation the minister might have accommodated at least some of the concerns that have been put to him by a huge range of stakeholders. But, on the back of the Four Corners piece the other night, it is pretty obvious that this is a false hope. So let me remove that ambiguity once and for all. If the government presents its mandatory internet censorship scheme to the parliament in the form that the minister has been describing to us, the Australian Greens will vote against it.

In closing, in the brief time remaining to me, I just want to give you an example of the kind of opposition that the minister has drawn, and one of the reasons why this proposal has drawn such far-reaching criticism. Suzanne Dvorak from Save the Children Australia has said:

The lack of evidence to support the efficacy of the Government's planned internet filter suggests that the money could be better spent on internet safety education for children and parents, an investment that will offer children greater protection online and offline.

I would like to heartily endorse those comments. It is not good enough for the government to simply get this issue out of the way during the election campaign and then bring it back straight afterwards. That is an act of calculated cowardice. I think it is very important for the government to drop the mandatory filter; to do it now, before the election; and to work with the Greens, the opposition and, most importantly, with the broader community, to provide a safe online environment for Australian children.