The Hon. AMANDA FAZIO
[6.11 p.m.]: Tonight I raise a very serious issue that would impact on the rights of all Australians to read, hear and see what they wish in public and in private. I quote from the Australian Labor Party's National Platform:
Labor believes that adults should be entitled to read, hear and see what they wish in private and in public, subject to adequate protections against persons being exposed to unsolicited material offensive to them and preventing conduct exploiting, or detrimental to the rights of others, particularly women and children.
Labor supports a requirement for Internet service providers to offer a filtered, clean feed Internet service to all households, schools and other public Internet points accessible by children.
I strongly support these parts of the national platform, and it was for this reason that I was very disturbed when the Federal Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, on 31 December 2007 announced mandatory Internet filters to protect children. Senator Conroy stated that the Government would work with the industry to ensure that the filters do not affect the speed of the Internet and that the new measures are being put in place to provide greater protection to children from online pornography and violent websites. Senator Conroy said it will be mandatory for all Internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material. However, when attempting to justify his proposals he went much further than the national platform allows. He stated:
Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the Internet is like going down the Chinese road.
This is where I believe the problem occurs. When grilled by a Senate estimates committee this week, he said the Government was looking at forcing Internet service providers to implement a two-tiered filtering system. The first tier, which Internet users would not be able to opt out of, would block all illegal material. Senator Conroy has previously said Australians would be able to opt out of any filters to obtain uncensored access to the Internet. The second tier, which is optional, would filter out content deemed inappropriate for children, such as pornography. But neither filter tier will be capable of censoring content obtained over peer-to-peer file sharing networks, which account for an estimated 60 per cent of Internet traffic. Senator Conroy has said that Britain, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand had all implemented similar filtering systems. However, in all cases, participation by Internet service providers was optional and the filtering was limited in scope to predominantly child pornography. Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, has said:
I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world.
Critics of the ISP-level filtering plan say software filters installed by the user on their PC, which are already provided by the government for free at netalert.gov.au
, are more than adequate. Information technology experts have stated that the plan will break the Internet while doing little to stop people from accessing illegal material such as child pornography. Internet providers and the Government's own tests have found that presently available filters are not capable of adequately distinguishing between legal and illegal content and can degrade Internet speeds by up to 86 per cent.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority released a report in July detailing the results of laboratory tests of six unnamed ISP-level filters. Only one of the filters tested resulted in an acceptable speed reduction of 2 per cent or less. The others caused drops in speed between 21 per cent and 86 per cent. The tests showed that the more accurate the filtering, the bigger the impact on network performance. However, none of the filters were completely accurate. They allowed access to between 2 per cent and 13 per cent of material that should have been blocked, and wrongly blocked between 1.3 per cent and 7.8 per cent of websites that should have been allowed.
One of my major concerns, apart from the impact on our right to freedom of speech and expression, is that this policy is perhaps the thin end of the wedge. Yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald
an article appeared that caused me considerable concern. I will quote from that article:
FAMILY FIRST senator Steve Fielding wants hardcore pornography and fetish material blocked under the Government's plans to filter the internet, sparking renewed fears the censorship could be expanded well beyond "illegal material".
The Opposition said it would take "a lot of convincing" for it to support the mandatory filtering policy, so the Government would need the support of Senator Fielding as well as the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon to pass the legislation.
The Opposition's communication spokesman, Nick Minchin, said it would take "a lot of convincing" for the Coalition to support the filtering plan. "The argy-bargy that would result over what is in and what is out strikes me as being almost impossible to manage and it would be a cat chasing its tail," Senator Minchin said.
I note that the Greens have been quite critical of this policy and are unlikely to support this measure. Industry sources said Senator Fielding's sentiments validated the concerns of Internet service providers that the categories of blocked content could be broadened significantly at the whim of the Government, which is under pressure to appease vocal minorities. Despite his earlier promises that Australians would be able to opt out of any Internet filters, Senator Conroy said the first tier would be compulsory and would block all illegal material. The second tier, which is optional, would filter out content deemed inappropriate for children, such as pornography.
But asked to specify the categories of content that Senator Fielding would like blocked by the mandatory first tier, a Family First spokeswoman indicated the party would want X-rated and refused classification [RC] content banned for everyone, including adults. Online users lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia expressed fears that the filters could be used as a bargaining chip every time the Government needed to pass important legislation. I urge the Federal Government to rethink this policy and to adhere to all aspects of the Australian Labor Party National Platform.