Stephen Fry is a supporter, the major internet providers in the UK indirectly support their cause and the upcoming Australian Federal Election promises a very visible worldwide platform for “Filter Conroy” – a powerful internet campaign aimed at stopping the Australian Mandatory Internet Filter from becoming a reality.
Whilst the online community is fully opposed to the Australian Mandatory Internet Filter with a plethora of Youtube videos, websites and cartoons devoted to vilifying Stephen Conroy, the general Australian public have not yet been given a means to oppose legislation which would see the Australian Media and Communications Authority – rather than a Court – pick and choose what the Australian public sees on the internet.
“Filter Conroy” aims to draw a straight line between voter rights and public policy. Through the use of a special mechanism in the Victorian State voting laws, “Filter Conroy” is advising voters on how to kick the main proponent of Australian internet censorship, Senator Conroy, out of office in 2010 if he insists on pushing the filter through parliament.
The Global Herald spoke to the campaign’s leader, Robin Darroch, to find out more about the opposition to the Australian Mandatory Internet Filter and what Victorians can do to shape the laws of their state and country.
What is the aim of Filter-Conroy?
Our aim is for Australia’s Labor government to drop its plan to implement a mandatory internet filter. Not to see it delayed, nor made mandatory-for-ISPs-but-opt-in/out-for-subscribers, just dropped.
The ISP-level web filter being proposed will be utterly ineffective against internet-based criminal activities (such as the trade in child pornography), will do nothing to protect children from inadvertent access to inappropriate material, will significantly increase the costs of providing internet service (costs which will be borne by every internet user regardless of whether or not they want such a filter), and will be trivial to bypass for anyone who wishes to do so (provided they are sufficiently informed to know that there is a filter to bypass).
Were Conroy dropped at the next election, do you think that the filter would still go ahead?
Stephen Conroy has a solid position in the Labor party, and it is almost inconceivable that the Labor party would drop him or even place him low on their senate ticket for re-election.
This means that if Conroy is removed from office at the next election, it could only be because there has been a phenomenal, unprecedented public backlash against him and his policies.
Although he has been a mediocre Minister for Communications in general, nothing else has galvanised public opposition to Senator Conroy as this filter, so the message from such a vote would be crystal clear: the mandatory Internet filter is political suicide. In such a case, I doubt very much that an otherwise politically savvy Kevin Rudd would keep the filter on as part of his party’s platform.
What level of interest have you had in the Filter Conroy so far?
We launched the site a week ago, and it’s been a very exciting week – tens of thousands of hits on our web site, hundreds of followers on Twitter and Facebook, dozens of mailing list subscribers, and more than two hundred individual e-mails sent through the web site: each e-mail from a Victorian voter who has pledged to put Stephen Conroy last on their senate ballot if he does not drop the mandatory internet filter.
Do you think it would be politically possible for Senator Conroy to back down under the current circumstances?
Absolutely: Senator Conroy is secure in his position as Communications minister because of his personal involvement in the National Broadband Network. The NBN is a popular policy for the Labor government (and one of the major promises they made before the last election).
By contrast, the mandatory internet filter is widely unknown: those who are technologically or politically aware know about it, but that’s about it. It has been kept quiet, perhaps because the government *knows* it is unpopular in general, and they would rather play dog-whistle politics with small groups like the Australian Christian Lobby than have the scheme widely publicised and debated by an informed public. In general, polling has shown that the more people know about the proposed filter, the more they are opposed to it.
To drop the policy altogether, Conroy could simply say that following advice from technical experts, he has concluded that ISP-based filtering is not sufficiently effective, and instead that the government will provide both free software and free telephone technical support to anyone who wishes to implement far superior PC-based or home router-based filtering solutions. This could be done both cheaply and centrally, would save huge amounts of money, and would be infinitely more effective than the proposed ISP-based mandatory filter.
Have you had any assurances from other Australian political parties that they would scrap the filter?
Of the major parties, only The Greens have stated opposition to the filter as part of their policy platform. Obviously Labor promote the filter as party policy (and Labor have very strict party discipline, so any internal dissent will not be heard in public – Kate Lundy’s proposed amendments are the closest thing to internal opposition we’re likely to see).
The Liberal/National coalition have been conspicuously silent on the issue. One of their prominent MPs, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has expressed personal opposition to the Government’s proposed filter, but there has been no stated party policy.
This could either be another case of lack of policy from the Coalition under leader Tony Abbott (whose policy performance to date has been patchy at best), or it could be a more considered non-position: traditionally, religious conservative voters have tended to support the Liberal/National coalition, so they may fear a backlash in marginal electorates if they were to oppose the filter.
Would you take Senator Conroy out for a beer if he gave in?
That’s a great idea! Australians can be counted on to take a mate out for a beer if he’s had a hard day, and I imagine Stephen Conroy would have had a hard day if he relinquished this filter he’s been promoting so desperately. Given the vitriol of his personal attacks against opponents of the filter, I reckon that buying him a couple of beers at the end of it would be a good way to say “no hard feelings, mate”.
What does Filter Conroy see as the major drawbacks of the filtering scheme?
How much time have you got? Leaving aside the bigger question of whether or not it’s the Government’s business to censor any medium, the scheme as it is proposed is almost nothing *but* drawbacks. These drawbacks can be grouped into three major categories: 1. it’s wasteful, 2. it is open to abuse, and 3. it won’t work.
1. It’s wasteful.
Implementing this policy will require additional hardware, software and technical support resources be deployed at every internet service provider in Australia, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of internet subscribers don’t want such a filter implemented. There are already two ISPs (Webshield and iPrimus) who offer “clean feed” services, but there is negligible demand for those services. Forcing ISPs to allocate additional resources to providing a service which hardly anyone wants is absurd.
ISPs operate in a highly competitive commercial environment, and run on paper-thin margins: any increase in costs associated with implementing the filter will be passed on to Australian internet subscribers, making internet access more expensive. Anyone who *does* want an ISP-based filter already has the option to purchase such a connection… but the fact that those services are selling so poorly is living, commercial proof that there just isn’t significant demand for such a service. The mandatory filter will make every internet subscriber in Australia subsidise the handful of people who want that additional service.
Finally, because it will interfere with every single act of accessing a web site (whether or not the page requested is on the blacklist), it will slow internet access. In some cases (high-traffic sites with many blocked pages) it could slow access to those sites by up to 30%. This will affect every internet user in Australia, regardless of whether or not they want the filter.
2. It is open to abuse.
The proposed filter will block access to a secret blacklist of sites about which the ACMA receive complaints and subsequently assess as meeting one or more criteria for being “refused classification” in Australia. Since the blacklist will be kept secret, there can be no public oversight of the validity of the list, nor a way of determining whether legitimate sites are being blocked (as has already happened in the earlier drafts of the blacklist, which were leaked on WikiLeaks). Furthermore, because of current classification rules, “refused classification” (or RC) includes a number of things which are perfectly legal and legitimate for adults to view or read, but which would not meet classification guidelines for public screening or broadcast (e.g. certain fetish material or information about euthanasia).
Even were it not for the problems of implementing a secret blacklist based on a nebulous category of negative classification (as is proposed right now), once such a filter is implemented it would be far too easy for future governments to expand the list of sites which they feel it’s best for the Australian people not to see. What if a future government decides that the Australian people shouldn’t see the equivalent “Filter Conroy”? What if such a site “accidentally” ends up on that secret blacklist? We’ve already seen a dentist and a tuck shop lady accidentally ending up on the blacklist… who’s next?
3. It won’t work.
This is the biggie. Not only is it wasteful and open to abuse (both now and in the future), but it won’t work at all:
– it is trivial to bypass: since the filter intercepts HTTP (web site) requests, anything that is *not* a direct request for a web site goes straight past the filter. This means that if someone wants to access material on the blacklist, all they have to do is use Tor (an international peer-to-peer network for anonymous, untraceable web browsing), use a proxy server, or use a VPN connection to a computer outside the Australian filterwall. Exit International have already held workshops throughout Australia training the elderly and the chronically ill on how to bypass the filter to access euthanasia information should they need it.
– it won’t protect anyone: “Refused Classification” fails to include most content which people would consider inappropriate for children, but simultaneously it includes material which is perfectly legal for consenting adults to view. An unsupervised child browsing the internet with the mandatory filter in place will be just as much at risk of stumbling across inappropriate material as they are now: it won’t protect them at all. To protect children on-line, a combination of PC-based parental controls and adult supervision is the only effective way to prevent them encountering inappropriate material.
– it won’t do anything about child pornography: since that material is illegal anywhere in the world, child pornography is almost never distributed on publicly available web sites. Instead, those involved in the child pornography trade use peer-to-peer distribution to avoid detection and capture. It’s irrelevant that child pornography would be “Refused Classification” – it’s simply illegal, and international law enforcement will be equally engaged in combating such material regardless of whether one or two public web pages are discovered, complained about and placed on the Australian blacklist.
Voters in Victoria are encouraged to check out the voting guides on the Filter Conroy websites in order to learn how to vote against Senator Conroy should they decide that the Australian Mandatory Internet Filter is against their interests.