Internet censorship in Senate Question Time today

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam writes:


In the Senate question time at about 2:30PM Eastern Summer Time today I plan on asking Communications Minister Stephen Conroy about his project for mandatory internet censorship, the so-called ‘clean feed’ which you’ve written to me about.

If you miss the broadcast I’ll have the transcript and a video clip here as soon as possible.

Depending on the Minister’s answer, you might like to give him a call on (02) 6277 7480 or email him on senator.conroy@aph.gov.au.

Edited 1300 (WST) to add: Is it not a really bad idea for a Government Senator to treat someone from the party with the Senate balance of power as though they’re a snotty, impertinent child? Rude bastard.

Senator Conroy completely failed to answer the question that was asked, which will surprise no-one who’s been following this debate. I’m also getting the impression from today’s proceedings, and from the EOI call, that the Government actually has no idea how to implement internet filtering, and expects private industry to step up and do all the work for them.

Here’s my transcript of the question time segment.

President of the Senate: Senator Ludlam.

Senator Ludlam: Thanks Mr President. My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I refer to the statements made by Senator Conroy in Senate Estimates hearings on October 20, 2008, in which the Minister said that Sweden, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand had mandatory internet filtering systems similar to those now being trialled in Australia. Can the Minister explain why he made this statement, in the light of the fact that in not one of those countries is the filtering system mandatory; and in fact the various systems in those countries are entirely voluntary, if they exist at all?

President of the Senate: The Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy.

Senator Conroy [laughs smugly, as if to a child]: Thankyou, Mr President, and I thank the Senator for his question, and further thank him for providing me with notice of the question.

The Government’s ISP filtering policy is one component of the Govenrment’s comprehensive 125.8 million dollar cybersafety plan. This plan contains a comprehensive set of measures to combat online threats, and how parents and educators protect children from inappropriate material. I can assure the Senator that the government will implement the ISP filtering component of this policy in a considered and consultative way. We are aware of technical concerns with filtering technology, and that is why we are conducting a pilot, to put these claims to the test. We are happy to have an open debate about these technical issues.

ISPs in a number of Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, and Canada have voluntarily introduced ISP-level filtering. The government is of course considering the experience of these countries in the development of its own policy. This international experience will also inform the Government’s upcoming, real-world, live, pilot.

On 10 November I released an expression of interest seeking the participation of ISPs and mobile telephone operators in this live pilot. The pilot will test filtering specifically against the ACMA blacklist of prohibited internet content, which is mostly child pornography, as well as filtering of other unwanted content.

While the ACMA blacklist is currently around 1300 URLs, the pilot will test against this list, as well as filtering against a range of URLs to around 10 000, so that the impact on network performance of a larger blacklist can be examined.

The live pilot will provide valuable, real-world evidence on the potential impact on internet speeds and costs to industry, and will help ensure we implement a filtering solution that is efficient, effective, and easy for Australian families to use. The pilot is intended to take a very flexible approach, and cover a range of different ISPs and types of connections. The technical testing framework for the pilot indicates a range of speeds will be tested, based on what most households can currently access. This range is not a hard and fast limit. Some people do currently have connections above 12 Meg, and the framework notes that consideration will also be given to testing performances above 12 Meg. Should an ISP wish to extend the pilot beyond 12 Meg, they are invited to put forward this in their expression of interest.

The technical testing framework also notes that costs including up-front costs to acquire and implement the technology, and costs to maintain the ISP filtering solutions, will be examined during the pilot. The costs are expected to vary depending on the size and complexity of the ISP, the type of filtering solution chosen, and the manner in which filtering is deployed by the ISP.

The pilot is an opportunity for the Australian industry to now come forward and engage directly with the Australian government in the development of ISP filtering. I strongly urge industry to become involved. As I said earlier, the Government intends to take a consultative –

President of the Senate: Senator Conroy, your time has expired. Senator Ludlam?

Senator Ludlam: Thankyou Mister President, and I thank the Minister for his attempt to answer the question [laughs from crowd]

I have a supplementary, in two parts, if I may. Will the Minister be providing a retraction to the Environment, Communications and the Arts committee as the answer he gave then was substantially different to the answer that was provided to that committee? [‘hear, hear’]
Will the Minister provide us a definition of what he means by “unwanted content” and where we might find a definition of “unwanted”? Will the Minster acknowledge the legitimate concerns by commentators and many members of the public that such a system will degrade internet performance, prove costly and inefficient, and do very little to achieve the Govenrment’s policy objectives; and furthmore that the Government’s proposal for dynamic filtering is the equivalent of the Post Office being required to open every single piece of mail?

President of the Senate: Senator Conroy?

Senator Conroy: [barely containing his mirth] Thankyou. The Senator asks a very la-ha-harge range of questions there, which it would be impossible for me to actually answer in one minute. So I will happily get you some further information on that very long list of questions. But if I could just again emphasise the fact that we have taken a consultative approach with industry, we have invited them to participate in the trial, and we have asked for the industry to come forward and work with government.

That is the basis on which we are progressing. We are seeking to test the claims – and they are many and varied. And that is why we are conducting a live trial. So in terms of the further detail, and as I’ve said it was quite a comprehensive list of questions there, I am happy to come back and provide the Senator with further information.

~~~

Later in the session:[Hansard, via Greens MPs]

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (3.32 pm) – I move: That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Senator Conroy) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to Internet filtering.

I want to briefly comment on the response by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to my question earlier about mandatory internet filtering. The reason I put the question to the minister in the form that I did was to clarify whether the government’s intention is to provide an opt-in internet filtering system in Australia for concerned parents or other people who might want to provide a filtered internet system for their families or for themselves, or whether the minister intends to go down the track of a mandatory feed. With some regret, I must admit that the minister’s comments have caused a great deal of concern. He has probably inadvertently muddied the waters quite substantially about the system that the government is proposing.

In estimates hearings on 20 October the minister listed a number of countries as trialling or having in current use mandatory internet filters. He listed a number of countries, including the UK, Canada and those that I mentioned in my question earlier. The reason I put the question to the minister in the form that I did is that none of those countries – the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Finland – has mandatory content blockers on their service providers. That is not even under trial in these places. It was trialled briefly, I believe, in Sweden, but it was optional, not mandatory, and that was embroiled in controversy last year when police tried to add certain kinds of peer to peer trackers to the list of what were meant to be simply child pornography sites. So we immediately saw the proposed expansion of the list that was being run in Sweden by police for completely unrelated purposes. I would put it to the minister – and I hope he would agree – that the list of countries which have mandatory filtering is not one that we particularly want to join. I am speaking of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Burma and some other countries. These countries are in many ways highly repressive, and I do not think that is a precedent we want to follow in Australia.

The problem with the concern and alarm that has been raised in the online community is that the minister has been very careful not to clarify what kind of system the government is proposing for use in Australia. We saw the same rather evasive approach in response to my questions earlier. All we are really after from the minister is, firstly, a retraction of the statements that he made before the estimates committee on 20 October, because quite clearly the story has changed – and at least that is quite welcome. The minister is not proposing that the countries that he listed a couple of weeks ago have mandatory content blockers. Also, we would like a clarification of what the government intends. What the minister said in the press was that, when this trial is proved successful, the government will move to institute such a system in Australia and that the process will be consultative. I do not see a great deal of consultation going on. The process is just rolling out, and a great deal of concern has reached my office and I presume also the minister’s office. So I would really appreciate some of those concerns being taken seriously.

~~~


No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in Australia



Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, Politics

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34 replies

  1. Conroy is doing the government no favours by treating cross-bench Senators with contempt. Nor is he doing the government any favours by treating the concerns of internet users with contempt. Internet users vote (well, the ones who are over 18, obviously) and I’m not sure Kevin11 will be able to rely on the yoof vote if they’re unable to use the internet to its full potential.

  2. Senator Conroy came across as smug and evasive. It appears he has not understood what the legitimate concerns of the (voting) community are as he keeps banging on about “we’ll co-operate with industry in the trials”.
    Yes, they will (at least with those deplorable ISPs who choose to debase themselves by colluding with the government), but the trial is a purely technical matter and does not even begin to answer the more fundamental criticisms such as the mandatory nature of the censorship and the fact that web filtering does nothing to suppress child pornography.

  3. Thankyou so much for transcribing it!

  4. I’ve just written two articles on what I think the correct strategy is for people who oppose Internet censorship:
    Defeating Australia’s Internet Censorship Plans
    Against Australian Internet Censorship? We Must Change Our Arrogant, Flawed Strategy.
    In a nutshell: opponents of the plan need to split up people who might support Internet censorship. The only way to do this is to take their concerns seriously., instead of characterising their worries as a simplistic “Won’t somebody think of the children” mentality.
    David Jackmanson’s last blog post..Against Australian Internet Censorship? We Must Change Our Arrogant, Flawed Strategy. #nocleanfeed

  5. So called “industry consultation” is one thing, what about consultation with the broader users? Or will the Govt “consult” like it does on OFLC matters – which is to say, not much at all or only with the loudest most conservative of groups. Will “industry” be championing freedom of speech alongside commercial interest? What a furphy this line is!
    PS – My page link is NSFW – I fully expect that I won’t be able to access it before long…

  6. Thanks for the transcription, even though I am not surprised by the content. I’m still really shocked that this is going ahead, and will be writing to the Senator yet again. (My cranky old lady writing time has a space since the Victorian abortion bill went through, yay!)

  7. Thanks for the transcript.
    Notice that Conroy is arguing for his plan on the basis that the criticsm is in regard to “technical” issues. The technical issues will be significant but the real issue is personal freedom.
    If a person views a website in the privacy of their own home they are not harming anybody. There is no reason to prevent them from viewing that website. If they harm themself (if you believe that violence and pornography can pollute the soul) then it is their perogative to exercise free will and voluntarily stop viewing the website. The the Government has no role to play here. Child Abuse is already a crime.

  8. Press updates (thanks twitterers!)
    SMH: “Net censorship plan backlash

    Opposition is mounting to the Government’s controversial plan to censor the internet, with the head of one of Australia’s largest ISPs labelling the Communications Minister the worst we’ve had in the past 15 years.[…]
    Michael Malone, managing director iiNet, said he would sign up to be involved in the “ridiculous” trials, which are scheduled to commence by December 24 this year.
    Optus and Telstra both said they were reviewing the Government’s documentation and would then decide whether to take part.
    But Malone’s main purpose was to provide the Government with “hard numbers” demonstrating “how stupid it is” – specifically that the filtering system would not work, would be patently simple to bypass, would not filter peer-to-peer traffic and would significantly degrade network speeds.
    “They’re not listening to the experts, they’re not listening to the industry, they’re not listening to consumers, so perhaps some hard numbers will actually help,” he said.
    “Every time a kid manages to get through this filter, we’ll be publicising it and every time it blocks legitimate content, we’ll be publicising it.”

    (I saw this statement as hearsay on the Whirlpool forums yesterday – has it been confirmed by Malone?)
    Also:
    Greens Senator Scott Ludlam: “Too many unanswered questions on net censorship: Greens

  9. Video of the exchange is up on YouTube, which you can access via Senator Ludlam’s here

  10. Thanks David, I’ve subbed that in for my audio version. Do you have the video of the second exchange?

  11. “If a person views a website in the privacy of their own home they are not harming anybody”
    That’s currently not what the law says. There are laws to the effect that no person may view such content on any media in any place on the grounds that they are harming people by doing so. As long as this law exists, the government will be driven towards internet censorship.
    While I deplore the government’s current initiative for technical reasons (it will fail – will block content it shouldn’t, fail to block content it should, and be generally expensive and troublesome), and because I am sure that it will also be abused (both by the target criminals, and by the government itself for other reasons later), if you wish to oppose the initiative on these grounds, it’s the wrong place to focus on.
    I don’t think that Conroy’s answers were that bad in context: 1 minute question and answer sessions are hardly the place to do serious business. Ludlam was kind of out of place asking such a loaded follow-on question. But this is all good at the moment – as long as the government knows that it will have few friends in public or industry on this, I can hope that sense will prevail.

  12. Grahame: The one minute limit is only on supplementary questions. The limit for the main question is four minutes. Ludlam asked a very focussed question, with notice, and Conroy point blank refused to answer it, despite having ample opportunity.
    The plans are being promoted as being to “block child pornography”, which is illegal to view (and with good reason), but have since the election been expanded greatly, with special interest groups weighing in to attempt to get a variety of legal-to-view material blocked.
    In addition, there will be no due process at all – whatever the government unilaterally decides is “unwanted” will be blocked, behind closed doors, with no apparent avenue of appeal.
    Luckily, this is unlikely to get past the Senate as things stand.

  13. As an aside: something that really struck me about this exchange – possibly because I’ve been paying too much attention to USAn politics over the past few years – is the laudable ability of both Senators to speak in complete, grammatical, and comprehensible sentences. Transcribing it was actually quite easy.

  14. The video from the “take notice” motion hasn’t been made available yet – we’re only allowed to use the official parliamentary broadcasting recordings…
    Grahame – question time and committee hearings are some of the only occasions where senators and members are compelled to answer on the record, so whilst I agree that it’s difficult to get a detailed answer in the limited time, it’s the only option available. Senator Ludlam also notified Minister Conroy before the question was actually asked in session, giving him ample time to prepare a thorough response, which he still didn’t really do.

  15. L: Thanks for your efforts on this.
    Hansard WOULD be interesting if sound effects”[laughs smugly, as if to a child]”, but if it provided all the evidence of parliamentary childishness, we wouldn’t have the bandwidth to download it.
    As to consulting with industry…. Conroy already has with the Content Services Bill 2007, with the industry saying “love to help, but empowering citizens to manage their own connections is the way to go”, while EFA and The NSW Council of Civil Liberties pulled the bill apart.
    And Howard’s 2007 bill was nowhere near as far-reaching as Conroy’s present efforts.
    In their submission to that inquiry, the EFA noted that
    “Misleading statements have been made by the (then) government about the proportion of prohibited content that is actual child pornography.”
    Yep, and I don’t think Conroy and the other populists are being any more honest than Howard’s mob!
    Thanks again.

  16. Let’s just say that I’ve experienced a taste of things to come myself; I’ve experienced it for some years, actually. Our IT manager, many moons ago, installed an antivirus/antispam checker which is also anti-offensive content. Problem is, it has never been able to determine these with any accuracy. Click on a completely inoffensive website and you’re likely to get “Block Pornography!!!!!!” Click on a blog with a mildly sweary comments thread and you’ll get the ZOMG escalated version with different colours and Very Serious Formatting.
    It is funny to see “Block Pornography!” when you click on Andy Bolt, but the laffs very soon wear off. It’s totally random; I can’t get Hoyden or the Balcony, but I can get LP, and their sweariness is fairly much on a par I would have thought.

  17. I think the address of the relevant Senate Daily Summary (which includes at least some of the transcripts from Senate Question Time) will be http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/pubs/daily/2008/111108.htm and available later on tomorrow night (the 12th) if anyone is interested

  18. > Ludlam asked a very focussed question, with notice, and Conroy point > blank refused to answer it, despite having ample opportunity
    In political speak, he answered it fairly so far as I can tell. What’s he going to say? “Well, I was wrong”? Have to be much wronger than that before a politician is ready to say that. So instead, he walked around his wrongness, and committed on the record to consultation and consideration of the experiences from these countries.
    While there’s still grounds for concern, these are words that will support senate rejection of his work later. And I sure hope the Senate does so if required. Personally, I think that the government is going through the motions on this one – they promised to do it, and what they will do is construct a package that needs to fail, but will make the senate look bad for doing so. Then it will go away in some complicated deal that will let some worse piece of legislation through.
    Anyway, what do you think he could’ve said?

  19. The answer to your question, Grahame, is simply yes: I wish for people to say “I was wrong” when they were wrong (or “I was mistaken”, or whatever); and politicians are no exception.
    Routinely faking it and lying to us aren’t praiseworthy or desirable attributes in our public servants. I expect integrity from the people we employ in the highest offices in the land, I hold Senators to a high standard, and I expect them to treat the voters with respect.

  20. I don’t I think I have ever seen a member or senator give a straight answer to a question. If anyone was so foolish as to do this the government whip (or some such) would be down on them like a ton of bricks. Attempting to wring mea culpas or genuine answers from ministers by making points of order etc is like getting blood from a stone, except that stones are somewhat more sanguine than government ministers. If the other parties are doing their jobs properly incompetence is exposed despite all the blather so I reckon the system works.
    I’d like to know more about that list of 1300 URL’s. If they really are “predominantly child pornography” as Conroy says then surely they are subject to more than just being put on a blacklist. The AFP’s child pornography unit would be involved, international equivalents will have been alerted and investigations instituted. I have nothing but praise for attempts to shut such URL’s down but if they are genuinely child pornography won’t simply filtering them impede investigations into who is involved?

  21. Su, Lauredhel, Grendel, for the record:
    Ministers are required to give correct and non-misleading answers to questions in Question Time. Misleading the House is one of the cardinal sins of Parliament. As such, it’s understood that when addressing a substantive topic they’re not expected to speak off the cuff. They are expected not to be incorrect.
    The President can direct a Minister to address the Question if they’re veering off the topic, but it’s generally only when Ministers veer wildly off-topic to attack the Opposition.
    In order to get things right Ministers pre-prepare notes on potential Questions they may be asked, with information and a response. You can see Conroy looking down at it—this is also why Ministers so often articulate gramatically correct sentences—and it’s obvious from Lauredhel’s transcript that it was prepared as a general brief on the pilot programme, probably expecting a question from the Opposition. I suspect from the last paragraphs it would have had further detail, had the question addressed financing.
    When pressed about a definition of “unwanted” Conroy takes the question on notice—as he should. A response will be provided, I’ll be interested to find out what it is.

  22. I don’t doubt that they are correct, but they are often seem to be correct about a question that was not asked, a question that is a second cousin to the actual question all padded with spin and counterattack. Don’t you think his original statement about international filtering regimes was misleading? (I don’t think he made that statement in the Senate so he wouldn’t have been misleading the senate).

  23. Did I say Grendel? It seems I did. I have no idea why I said that. Grendel is nowhere in this thread.
    I apologise for my misleading, incorrect comment. I offer my resignation to the Blog Leaders.

  24. Liam – Senator Ludlam actually provided advance notice to Minister Conroy about the question, despite having no obligation to do so. Minister Conroy still largely ducked the question.
    su – The statement you are referring to was made in a Senate Estimates committee hearing, so the same rules that Liam mentioned should apply.
    The transcript from Hansard is now available here
    Senator Ludlam also entered a motion to take note of Minister Conroy’s answer, which you can read here

  25. Su, “misleading” in the Parliamentary/technical sense means deliberately wrong in fact. Conroy may not have satisfied Ludlam, but the answer he gave was a) more or less on topic b) factually correct and c) more or less informative.
    And you can certainly mislead the House in a sitting of Estimates Committee, hence my curiosity about Conroy’s answer to be provided, as was agreed. Ludlam followed up his Question without Notice: Hansard from yesterday, see p27.

  26. I don’t now why Senator Ludlum said that Conroy had referred to mandatory filters in Senate Estimates because Conroy didn’t answer that question when Ludlum posed it in Senate Estimates as far as I can tell, instead Rizvi said that the UK black list was being used voluntarily by some ISP’s. But everytime Conroy makes a statement to the Press he will reference the UK, Sweden etc without making it clear that none of these places impose the filtering on all ISP’s.

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