So Conroy’s Internet filter won’t block political speech, eh?

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Another week, another hole appearing in the Rudd government’s plans for pervasive Internet censorship. I’m in Crikey today with a piece headlined So Conroy’s Internet filter won’t block political speech, eh?

It begins:

“Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there has never been any suggestion that the Australian Government would seek to block political content,” intoned Senator Stephen Conroy on Tuesday.

Yet the very next day, ACMA added a page from what’s arguably a political website to its secret blacklist of Internet nasties.

The page is part of an anti-abortion website which claims to include “everything schools, government, and abortion clinics are afraid to tell or show you”. Yes, photos of dismembered fetuses designed to scare women out of having an abortion. Before you click through, be warned: it is confronting. Here’s the blacklisted page.

The piece goes on to argue that while you may or may not agree with the political stance or tactics of the anti-abortionists, they’re within their rights to express their political views, and express them strongly. The article isn’t behind the paywall, so read on

The article also quotes Peter Black, who lectures in Internet law at QUT and blogs at Freedom to Differ. The full text of his commentary is over the jump.

Peter writes:

The ACMA classifying this anti-abortion website as prohibited content or potential prohibited content highlights several serious flaws inherent in the policy to filter the internet.

First, it is indicative of the difficulty associated with defining “political speech”. Legal scholars, judges and philosophers have wrestled with the boundaries of political speech for centuries, from John Milton to Alexander Meikeljohn, and it ludicrous to suggest that the ACMA or the Government is magically imbued with the ability to determine which websites have an element of political content and which do not. And nor should that be the role of the ACMA or the Government. Citizens in a liberal democracy should be lawfully able to inform themselves on matters that are of political interest of them, and not have the debate framed or restricted by Government classification.

Second, it demonstrates the inflexibility of the classification standards. It is probable that this website does indeed constitute prohibited content or potential prohibited content under the Broadcasting Services Act, but that is only because the definitions in the Act inevitably treat all content in the same way; the same standard applies to political and non-political content.

Third, it is a good example of the dangers inherent in prior restraint. Once a website like this gets added to the blacklist is becomes impossible for Australian citizens to determine for themselves whether this website should be banned or not. The proposed filter means that the public cannot review the decisions made by the ACMA or the Government. This lack of accountability should be very troubling to anyone living in a liberal democracy.

Ultimately the fate of this website is an illustrative example of the dangers inherent in any Government censorship scheme. Issues of political speech, classification and accountability are without doubt both complex and important, and any notion that they can be adequately addressed and balanced by a Government regulator engaging in prior restraint is somewhere between being unbelievably naive and downright dangerous.

I don’t agree with the anti-abortionists. I think their tactics are unnecessarily confrontationist and have the potential to cause psychological harm to vulnerable young women. Nevertheless, they’re entitled to express their political views.

Australian is (supposedly) a Western liberal democracy. We fought and won World War II to defend our freedoms. I may not like my political opponents’ ideas, but suppressing their views, rather than debating and defeating them, is worse. Far worse.

8 Replies to “So Conroy’s Internet filter won’t block political speech, eh?”

  1. Religion is arguably a form of child abuse (and in some dreadful cases actually supported thus).

    So will ACMA add all religious sites to its filters?

    How about Barney the Purple Dinosaur? I read somewhere on the scary Internets that he is the anti-christ… Add him to the ACMA list I say.

  2. Senator Conroy on Freedom of Speech at the Sydney Institute 6th May 2008

    “out at Penrith we had nearly 600 people turn up to talk and literally it is an open forum and you can get asked ANYTHING (!) – he’s got the entire cabinet there – he’s up there himself and he just takes whatever questions get thrown at him and passes them on to relevant minsters as well…”

    “he’s consultative.. he’s open… there’s changes to FOI laws that are coming… he wants to run a more transparent and open government…”

    “more consultative.. more dynamic…”

    noting that the Howard government had “become tired” Conroy stated…

    “we’re determined to pick up the pace…”


    However when criticism of his filtering plan emerged in open dialog on Whirlpool (and similar Internet forums) what was the Minister’s response ? Was it open and transparent ? I don’t think so.

    My understanding is that he attempted to stifle freedom of speech. I was one of the “nearly 600 people” who attended the Penrith South Cabinet where I sat opposite Senator Conroy. I also attended the Sydney Institute function from which the podcast referred to above was recorded. I believe you can find reference to both in my writings.

    Penrith South Community Cabinet 15th. April 2008

    Bob Bain – LiveJournal


    “I sat in the third row almost directly opposite Stephen Conroy (who wants to censor the Internet) and Robert McLelland who looked exactly as he does in the photograph on Wikipedia. I noted Stephen Conroy and Robert McLelland greeting each other as they took their places. Neither spoke at the event as there were no questions raised that related to their portfolios. There were more people wishing to ask questions or make comments than could possibly be accommodated. Kevin Rudd (God) appeared to acknowledge every hand that was raised and pointed to people in “red or blue” polo shirts who could be contacted such that the Ministers were aware of the issues the people wished raised. A few people had fact sheets relating to their personal meetings with selected cabinet ministers the logistics of which Kevin Rudd admitted he wasn’t sure about. I shuffled out tired and weary and even if I could have found a person in a red or blue polo shirt I was too exhausted to find them.”


    I found it interesting that the Minister seemed amazed that Ministers could get asked ANYTHING (the emphasis is mine). To my hearing he didn’t seem familiar with the concept.

    The Sydney Institute podcast contains reference to the mandatory Internet Filtering scheme. It can be downloaded from the Sydney Institute podcast page:-

    Click on Podcast – select Tue, 06 May 2008 – The Hon. Stephen Conroy MP – Broadband and the Digital Economy

    See also “Somebody Think of the Children” May 7 2008

    “In his speech last night at a Sydney Institute talk on the topic of Broadband and the Digital Economy, Conroy expressed concern about the new fangled phone, noting that because of it the need for mandatory filtering was now even more essential.

    Bob Bain was in attendance and reported back on the event to the No-Censorship mailing list. Here’s Conroy’s reasoning:”

    (for reasoning see the STOTC entry..)

    BTW: You have to click a box that states you are over 12 years of age to view the prohibited content page. If you click the box it let’s you view the page. If you dismiss it then it also let’s you view the page. There is no “I’m not yet 12 years of age button please permit me to leave” button.

    In fact the page loads before the button.

    I’m not sure if people who handed questions to people in red or blue polo shirts at the Penrith South Community Cabinet were accomodated with replies.

    One thing’s for sure. Kevin didn’t know all the answers !

  3. It is a mess alright. And I imagine that this will bring on a rush of complaints to ACMA, even without the filter being in place.

  4. Just made this comment at Crikey, but I might as well share and enjoy.

    Another comment Conroy made at the ALIA conference, regarding the (always the bridesmaid, never the bride) “live trials”:

    “Several technical claims have been made about ISP filtering – including that it will slow down the internet or result in over-blocking of content.

    “Let’s put those claims to the test. ”

    I don’t think we need to do that anymore, Mr. Conroy. You’ve just proved that even if your proposed system is 100% perfect and exhibits no overblocking whatsoever, YOU’LL STILL BLOCK CONTENT THAT SHOULDN’T BE BLOCKED.

    Remind me again: What’s the point of the live trial? I think you’ve just relegated it to a face-saving exercise, you’re just doing it so nobody will ever be able to say that those damn hippies on the internets forced you to stop. You bozos budgeted $1m for this, so I guess you’re putting a price-tag on your pride.

    – mark

  5. In respect of transparency and open and public dialog promised by the Government at the Penrith South Cabinet (see my earlier remarks) I note Senator Minchin’s statement from The Australian on-line January 22nd under the heading:-

    Crucial broadband report kept secret ( Andrew Colley – January 22, 2009 ),24897,24947794-5013040,00.html

    On Tuesday Opposition communications spokesman Nick Minchin challenged Senator Conroy to adhere to a promise in December 2007 to “hold an open transparent tender process”.

    “The Rudd Government should release both of these reports and seek public comment before making any final decision on a preferred tenderer. If it refuses, the Australian public has every reason to view this process with deep suspicion considering $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ money is at risk.”

    “It seems the only person who doesn’t think the public should be kept fully informed about this process and given a say is Senator Conroy,” Senator Minchin said.

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