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Australian firewall wobbles under pressure from all sides

Conroy running out of time

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The future of the great Australian firewall is beginning to look decidedly shaky, as electoral calculations and widespread condemnation from politicians and industry alike begin to take their toll.

That's the analysis from Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam, who believes the proposed internet filter is now on the list of policies considered to be "politically toxic".

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has repeatedly claimed that legislation to enable his mandatory filtering policy for all Australian adults would be put to parliament later this year. This is despite leaks from his own department suggesting that progress on drafting the bill was far less advanced than Senator Conroy had previously hinted.

According to the Senator, delays have mostly been caused by exploring issues around transparency and accountability.

However, a general election is expected before the end of the year, and with parliament rising this week and not due to return until August 24, that leaves very little time left to draft, propose and argue through what looks certain to be a highly controversial set of policies in respect of the internet.

In a recent phone interview, Scott Ludlam added weight to speculation that the issues Conroy cited were not the whole story. He described the filtering policy as now "on the list of politically toxic subjects that you don't in your right mind run during an election campaign".

Opposition to the filter is widespread and comes from all sides of the political spectrum. The Register has previously reported strong opposition to the scheme not just from ordinary web-users, but from industry, ISPs and significant online players including Google and YouTube.

Although Conroy claims to be following the lead taken by several other Western countries, international rights groups have criticised his proposals for going further and being far more restrictive than anything seen so far in any democratic nation. Even the US State Department is reported to have been disturbed by the scale of his proposals.

The result has been a number of high-profile campaigns mocking the Minister’s alleged naivety. The latest in a long line of spoofs and parodies aimed at mocking the Australian government for its restrictive attitude appeared last week as online electronics seller Kogan Technologies released its own parody clip. It claims: "Two budding engineers from the Kogan Technologies R&D team in Melbourne, Con & Roy, have developed an Internet filter that portects Australians from 'spams and scams coming through the portal'."

In case the government’s red panic button fails to work, Kogan’s "Portector" filter - made from "the finest 8000-thread count Egyptian cotton" – is available to net users for just $2,999.

More seriously, Conroy is starting to encounter hostility from within his own party, as Labor Senator Kate Lundy recently blogged that she was working to change the policy "to better achieve the policy goals of protecting children through empowering and educating parents". Lundy says she wants two key amendments:

  1. The availability of an unfiltered, open internet service to be guaranteed in law.
  2. Opt-in customisable filtering (ie unfiltered, RC or to personal taste) for the general population.

The only slight hope remaining for the Communications Minister is that following the instalment of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader, the opposition has remained – officially at least - resolutely silent on this issue. Nonetheless, several heavyweights from the opposition benches, including Joe Hockey, have attacked the policy.

In politics nothing is certain, but on the evidence so far, don’t bet on the Australian internet filter becoming law any time this year. ®

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