Wild claims Hysteria Enthusiastic commentary on internet censorship: Ludlam in Senate Estimates

[edited 24/25/27 Oct 2008 to update Further Reading list and keep the links roundup up to date.]

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has been trying to extract information on the new internet filtering plans in Senate Estimates committee.

Here’s the transcript, via the Greens website.

My notes:

* Internet filtering funding has been allocated $44.2 million over four years.

* Real life trials have still not commenced. Labor are “consulting” with “a wide range of ISPs”, the Internet Industry Association and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. They have contracted with a testing group called NX Test Laboratories to design a live pilot.

* Conroy confirmed that they are looking at two tiers, one mandatory, and one opt-out.

* Conroy thinks that the commentary by people concerned about internet censorship is “hysterical” (darnit, is my womb out of control yet again?)

Senator Conroy- Notwithstanding some of the commentary that borders on hysterical at times that you have possibly seen, we are just slowly and methodically working our way through and gathering information through this trial.

Senator LUDLAM-Some of the comments that I have seen did not approach hysterical at all. I think there have been some quite well thought through concerns.

– Senator Ludlam pushed on overblocking and underblocking benchmarks, and was shut down. The government hasn’t even begun to think about such things, apparently, and refuses to consider it at this stage:

Senator LUDLAM – What are the odds that the filtering software in that case is going to start knocking out content inadvertently and start returning fairly serious false positives?

Senator Conroy-Underblocking and overblocking are obviously issues. That is why we are engaged in conversation with the sector about it-to specifically try to minimise this sort of impact.

Senator LUDLAM-So what are your benchmarks or what is acceptable?

Senator Conroy-We are just at the very early stages. You are actually jumping ahead. I can understand that if you have been reading some of the wild and-

Senator LUDLAM-Some of it is not so wild, Minister.

Senator Conroy-enthusiastic commentary that I keep seeing both in blogs and in the media. But we are actually only in the early stages and we have committed to consult with the sector to work through these very issues. We have not set some of those benchmarks. What we are seeing is what is the impact, but we have not said, ‘Right, three per cent is acceptable and seven per cent is not acceptable.’ We actually have not done that.

Three percent? Seven percent? Now there’s a slip that reveals what he’s thinking. Not 0.01 percent or 0.001 percent, Senator Conroy? Three to seven percent is what immediately springs to mind? This is going to be a colossal disaster.

– Senator Conroy does not know whether euthanasia information and pro-anorexia information will fall under the mandatory filter.

Conroy’s responses on the matter are contradictory:

Senator Conroy-As I said, we are enforcing current law and ACMA determine this based on the existing law. […] We do not believe that you should be able to opt in to child porn. I am sure you do not either.

Senator LUDLAM-What about, for another controversial example, euthanasia related material?

Senator Conroy-You would have to ask them whether that falls within their definition. There are calls for, as an example, banning pro anorexia websites. Again, it falls into that sort of category. So there are calls for a whole range of material to be included in the black list, but I do not think that they fall inside the existing definitions under the law.


Senator LUDLAM-[…] The black list, as the minister is rightly pointing out, can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes-euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet.

Senator Conroy-Existing provisions under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 are able to deal with suicide related material that provides detailed instruction or promotion of matters of crime or violence. It is an existing law. […]

Existing provisions under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 are able to deal with suicide related material that provides detailed instruction or promotion of matters of crime or violence, and such material would be refused classification and regarded as prohibited content currently.

* Senator Ludlam pushed Conroy on a very basic issue, the issue of where the software would reside, and Conroy refused to answer, on the grounds that they were testing an “objective, not a particular technology”. They are looking at both software and hardware solutions. Hardware based solution seems to be some sort of “black box” technology.

Dr Pelling: Typically a hardware filtering device will be a computer-sized box, for example, which will have built into it an underlying software platform that will assess the internet stream going through it against, for example, an extensive black list or a series of categories of sites which are often developed by the service provider. They will filter the internet stream against those sites which are continually updated. When we say ‘hardware versus software’, the hardware platforms would be typically an integrated platform in a small box which would be plugged in and can be customised to a certain extent.

* Senator Conroy on international consultation and “wild claims”:

This is not a problem you can solve with one jurisdiction. The internet is international. So we have been encouraging greater cooperation between law enforcement agencies across the world so that we can try, where possible, to combine black lists. That will stop us reinventing the wheel, so to speak. So different jurisdictions have a range of different black lists. They have not been coordinated at this stage.


When you say ‘block content from leaving the ISP’, this is to work with the ISPs-and that is why we have been consulting so much with them-to minimise any impact on the actual operation of the net. That is why we are going through the trials. We are going through the laboratory trial that you heard about and we are going to go down the path of a real world trial, because we have committed to consult extensively with the sector to ensure that we do not have the impact that some wild claims make.

* An exchange worth reading:

Senator LUDLAM-Of those countries that you have named, I am not expecting that they are all identical
in form, because I understand that your proposal is not opt in or opt out. It will be mandatory content blocking across all Australian ISPs.

Senator Conroy-We are-

Senator LUDLAM-Just let me finish. In terms of the countries that you have just listed for me, it is mandatory or is it an opt-in system that, for example, concerned parents could take advantage of?

Senator Conroy-Illegal material is illegal material. Child pornography is child pornography. I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography.

Senator LUDLAM-No. That is why I was interested in asking about the law enforcement side of it as well.

Senator Conroy-No, we are working both angles at it. We are just trying to use technology to enforce the existing laws.

Senator LUDLAM-I am just wondering if I can put these questions to you without being accused of being pro child pornography. That would assist.

Senator Conroy-I was wondering if I could get the questions without being accused of being the Great Wall of China.

Senator LUDLAM-I have not-

Senator Conroy-Oh, okay. As long as you are allowed to have value in your questions I will have no value in my answers.

Scott Ludlam = my new hero. Go write a note to your local Greens, people. Get involved. Here’s the No Clean Feed link again.


References and Further Reading:

Hoyden About Town: The Great Firewall of Australia., 31 Dec 2007

Hoyden About Town: “Civil liberties advocates = paedophiles”: Internet culture wars from the ALP. 1 Jan 2008

Hoyden About Town: You – You – You – Non-cookie-cutter feminist, you! 3 Jan 2008

Hoyden About Town: Censoring the Internet: Conroy plays King Canute. 4 Jan 2008

EFA analysis of the proposal, 4 Mar 2008

Computerworld: “Great Wall of Australia: Content filtering fails parliament“. 15 May 2008

ACMA pilot test results: Closed Environment Testing of ISP-level Internet Content Filtering, June 2008

Minister’s Media Release, 28 July 2008

Hoyden About Town: No surprises: internet filtering test results show products block legitimate content. 31 July 2008

Hoyden About Town: “Mandatory Australian Internet Censorship: Conroy’s Bait and Switch“. 17 Oct 2008

Computerworld: No opt-out of filtered Internet. 13 Oct 2008

Ars Technica: ‘Net filters “required” for all Australians, no opt-out. 16 Oct 2008

Gizmodo: Australia To Build Great Firewall Down Under. 16 Oct 2008

Crikey: And the Wankley Award goes to … Conroy’s net filtering scheme. 17 Oct 2008

Mark Newton: Letter to Minister Kate Ellis with detailed objections to the filtering proposals [PDF]. 20 Oct 2008

Somebody Think of the Children: “Interview: Internode’s Mark Newton talks filtering“. 20 Oct 2008

Somebody Think of the Children: “Greens Senator quizzes Conroy on filtering“. 23 Oct 2008

The Inquisitr: “Australian censorship minister tries to censor critic: time to go Conroy“. 23 Oct 2008

New Matilda: “First They Came for the Perverts“. 23 Oct 2008

ABC News: “The high price of internet filtering“. 24 Oct 2008

The Age: “Filtering out the fury: how government tried to gag web censor critics“. 24 Oct 2008

Ponderance: “Stop Internet Censorship in Australia!“. 24 Oct 2008

Stilgherrian: “Completely inappropriate, Senator Conroy“. 24 Oct 2008

Crikey: “Cheap tricks not the right response on internet filtering“. 24 Oct 2008

Larvatus Prodeo: “Scrutiny in the Senate: water, markets and censorship“. 24 Oct 2008

Computerworld: “‘Appalled’ opposition hits back at Conroy’s Internet censorship“. 24 Oct 2008

Ars Technica: “Aussie govt: Don’t criticize our (terrible) ‘Net filters“. 24 Oct 2008

Builder AU: “NSW to censor student laptops”. 24 Oct 2008

BBC: “Australia trials national net filters“. 25 Oct 2008

SMH: “Net filters may block porn and gambling sites“. 27 Oct 2008

EFA clean-feed site

Categories: culture wars, law & order, Politics, technology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Senator LUDLAM-I am just wondering if I can put these questions to you without being accused of being pro child pornography. That would assist.
    Yes. That. I hate this “think of the children!” bullshit. We’re adults, we have the right to choose what we want to do with the information out there. *breathes*

  2. Maharetr: this seems to be a common theme amongst conservatives. For a quite different context but a strikingly similar use of veiled accusation, see some of the discourse around the NT Intervention:
    ”Difference of Opinion – on the NT recolonisation”: in which Sue Gordon accused indigenous activists of being keen to maintain the status quo (in the context of child sexual abuse); and
    this post, in which Bill Glasson, one of the medical architects of the intervention, attempted to equate those opposing the intervention to those exploiting indigenous communities by activities like profiting from alcohol sales.

  3. I expect to hear one Friday arvo that this monstrosity has been quietly shelved when they finally realise they can’t possibly make it work a) technically or b) politically. How much money will be wasted by then though. What a joke.

  4. The latest news: Senator Conroy’s office wrote to the Internet Industry Association board to tell them to pressure Internode engineer Mark Newton into ceasing his public dissent.
    Newton is a private citizen, who has been clear that he’s not acting for his business when he has been speaking out against the proposed filters.
    Anyone who feels confident that this government won’t attempt to suppress political dissent has their head in the sand.

    On Tuesday, a policy advisor for Senator Conroy, Belinda Dennett, wrote an email to Internet Industry Association (IIA) board member Carolyn Dalton in an attempt to pressure Newton into reining in his dissent.
    “In your capacity as a board member of the IIA I would like to express my serious concern that a IIA member would be sending out this sort of message. I have also advised [IIA chief executive] Peter Coroneos of my disappointment in this sort of irresponsible behaviour ,” the email, read.
    It is understood the email was accompanied by a phone call demanding that the message be passed on to senior Internode management.
    Newton said he found the bullying “outrageous” and Senator Conroy was “misusing his influence as a Commonwealth Minister to intimidate a private dissenting citizen into silencing his political views”.

  5. Mark Newton, posting on Whirlpool, has taken a look at Conroy’s remarks claiming that filters in the UK, Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand are relevant precedent for the proposed Australian filters. Conroy’s words:

    ”Just to indicate the countries that have implemented along the lines that Abul is talking about include Sweden, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. This is not some one-off excursion.”

    Newton’s response:

    If you look at http://libertus.net/censor/ispfiltering-gl.html you can see some well-referenced factual data about each of those countries:
    * UK: Government specifically excluded from online censorship by the Communications Act. British Telecom has implemented a private, voluntary clean feed system which its customers can use if they wish;
    * Canada: Eight ISPs, without any Government coersion at all, run a voluntary parental control tool. The project’s FAQ specifically states that “There is no legal obligation to do this; it will be entirely voluntary. ISPs may have technical or other reasons for not adopting the system;
    * Sweden: One ISP, Telenor, runs an optional blacklist. It was embroiled in controversy last year when the police tried to add P2P trackers to the list as child pornography sites, demonstrating how pernicious “scope creep” is in these systems: As soon as they exist, there’s always political pressure to make them block more;
    * New Zealand: Examined the BT Cleanfeed system from the UK in 2005, and concluded that it was only 10-15 per cent effective in a fitness-for-purpose study launched by the Department of Internal Affairs Censorship Compliance Unit. The Government abandoned the idea as something too stupid to pursue; I contacted the President of InternetNZ today to confirm that there’s no NZ censorship system whatsoever, and they don’t expect that situation to change if there’s a change of Government in their election later this year.
    All four of Conroy’s examples delivered under oath to the Senate were wrong. None of those countries do anything like what he’s proposed. All of them perform variations on what various Australian ISPs have already done!

  6. There’s a good opinion piece up at ABC Online.

    extra ISP infrastructure needed to meet the burden of filtering will drive up the cost of your internet service bill. Network engineer Mark Newton says ISPs will also require more call centre staff to deal with angry customers who can’t access websites.
    Large operators may be able to absorb these costs, but small ISPs risk going under and consumer choice becoming limited. As a matter of fact, all businesses risk losing out under the Government’s plan. Given the rate the tested filters block innocent websites, a whopping 10,000 out of every one million at best, it won’t take long for sites belonging to the local plumber or GP to be mistaken and banned. Any loss of income due to website downtime is inexcusable and it’s still not clear if or how we’ll be able to appeal a decision.
    There’s also the issue of filtering HTTPS web traffic – the protocol used for online banking transactions. Five of the filters tested for ACMA could intercept HTTPS traffic, a worrying prospect if the Government intends to use one for blocking secure websites that are inappropriate or illegal. A filter inspecting secure banking data and online purchases for unsavory content effectively opens the door to fraudsters and undermines the entire e-commerce process.

  7. New links just added to the roundup:
    BBC: “Australia trials national net filters”. 25 Oct 2008
    Builder AU: ”NSW to censor student laptops”. 24 Oct 2008
    The latter link discusses mandatory whitelisting to be placed on the laptops of senior students in NSW.

    Later, chief information officer Wilson detailed the “unbreakable” filtering system that would control students’ internet experience on the proposed laptops.
    “Our internet filtering is unbreakable. We have a huge proxy array that does all the filtering. We’ve just brought that in-house and the reason we have done that is we want much tighter control over it,” said Wilson.
    DET has developed 98 categories of websites that are accessible to students. “Every internet site that’s known is actually categorised. If it isn’t known, it’s blocked. If you go to a site and it’s not categorised you can’t get to it,” he said.


  1. Senate Estimates digs up some disturbing facts « Public Polity
  2. Mandatory Australian Internet Censorship: Conroy’s Bait and Switch at Hoyden About Town
  3. Beast Or Buddha » Blog Archive » Be Alert…Not Alarmed (Looking at Internet Filtering in Australia)
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