How clean is Labor’s “clean feed” Internet?

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The ALP’s grand vision of a “clean feed” Internet safe for Aussie kids is meant to filter out — what, exactly? Labor’s pre-election policy [PDF file] seemed to give the proposed ISP-level filters wide scope indeed, blocking content “inappropriate” or “harmful” for children — however that’s defined. But evidence given to Senate estimates last night suggests it’s little more than what’s already in place.

As I’ve written in Crikey before [1, 2] debate is clouded because sometimes people talk about Internet filtering in terms of child pornography and other very-illegal “prohibited content”, and other times it’s about material as wide-ranging as websites promoting anorexia as a lifestyle choice.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy hasn’t helped by labelling free speech advocates watchers of kiddie porn.

Last night Senator Conroy confirmed that the trial of ISP-level filtering is on schedule. The contract has been issued; the report’s due back on 30 June. But what’s actually being filtered, beyond ACMA’s existing blacklist of about 800 URLs of “prohibited content”? No-one knows. A Ms O’Loughlin from ACMA told us they “haven’t completed discussions” with the Minister’s office about that.

When repeatedly questioned by SA Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham about the scope, another ACMA staffer admitted that they’re looking at expanding the existing list to perhaps 1500 URLs.

As Senator Birmingham rightly noted, “1500 still sounds like an incredibly small number to me, given the scope of the ALP’s policy.” Indeed. It certainly doesn’t begin to cover what might be considered “inappropriate” or “harmful”.

And that’s about as deep as the probe was thrust. One has to wonder just how big an issue this really is when even Family First’s Senator Steve Fielding made only routine enquiries about the timing of the trial, and everyone else was more concerned about Telstra turning off the CDMA network.

If the (non-)reaction to the Howard government’s NetAlert program is anything to go by, perhaps no-one cares.

Conroy confirmed the weekend news that even after a $22M advertising blitz, only 144,088 taxpayer-funded filters were installed — nowhere near the target 1.4 million — and just 29,000 of them are still in use. A question from ALP Senator Ruth Webber elicited that the NetAlert call centre, still operating 8am to 10pm seven days a week, receives just 20 to 40 calls a day.

[Update 20 February 2008: This article was originally written for Crikey, who published it today under the title Labor’s dream of kid-friendly internet is flawed.]

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5 comments

  1. Michael Meloni’s avatar

    Complete the trial with just 800 URLs, announce its success, push through mandatory ISP filtering and then start adding the ‘inappropriate content’ to the list.

    Even if they were to stick to around 1500 URLs, the fact still remains that all Australian Internet conenctions will be filtered and all Australian ISPs will be forced to comply.

    Not all content on the current ACMA list is C/P. What’s not is what concerns me.

  2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Michael Meloni: As the discussion over on Link have highlighted (scroll down that page a bit), the real mess here is that two completely different tasks are being jumbled together:

    Block a relatively few very nasty sites (child pornography etc) so that no-one can view them; and
    Block a very large number of rapidly-changing sites for some users (children), while allowing them for others (adults).

    As long as the two tasks are mixed together, there will never be any clarity.

    Neither will there be any clarity as long as ill-defined terms like “inappropriate” are bandied about. Inappropriate for whom? In what context? As I’ve said before, what’s “appropriate” for a 5yo is probably very different from that for a 15yo, but both are “children”.

    I still maintain that for Problem #2 the government should just bugger off out of it.

  3. Michael Meloni’s avatar

    I agree that on point two the Government needs to walk away. On point one there needs to be considerable clarification on what sites would be blocked (it’s the ‘etc’ bit the worries me), will there be disclosure, how will ISPS be subsidised, will it impact our speeds — a lot of questions need to be answered.

    I don’t forsee them backing away from either.

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