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Conroy, Family First isolated on Oz internet filter

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Clear blue water seems now to be opening up between the incumbent Australian Labor Government and other parties standing in the forthcoming election on the issue of cybersafety.

In plans announced this week (pdf), the Liberal National Coalition, which currently forms the main opposition group in the Australian parliament slammed the Labor Government for giving parents "a false sense of security when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of their children".

Labor, they claimed, had comprehensively failed to deliver on cybersafety policies for children – and this failure was directly linked to Labor’s inability to let go of its obsession with its proposal to apply mandatory internet filtering to all Australian citizens accessing the internet.

The solution was flawed anyway, as even the Government had acknowledged that such a filter would be powerless to stop people circumventing it via proxy networks and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

In its place, the Coalition argued that "the best protection parents can give children is guidance about appropriate internet usage". They are proposing a fourfold plan of action which they expect to cost Aus $100.5m over the next four years. It includes:

- Provision of a free PC-based internet filter to families ($60 m)

- Expanding ACMA’s successful Cybersafety Outreach Programme ($30 m)

- Empowering principals and introducing a new national education campaign to combat bullying and cyberbullying, with particular reference to new social media sites ($10.5 m)

- Establishing a new Ministerial Advisory Committee on Social Networking

This view is in sharp contrast to the latest statement from Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who informed the ICT leaders debate in Canberra this week that if re-elected, his party would press on with the policy.

He told his audience: "We will bring forward the legislation once we've finished the review [of refused classification guidelines]."

However, years of alienating a broad range of opinion on this issue appear finally to be coming home to roost for Labor, as the Coalition cited endorsement for their views from the Safer Internet Group, representing Google, iiNet, Yahoo, the Internet Industry Association (IIA), the Internet Society of Australia and the Australian Council of State School Organisations.

In opposing mandatory filter plans (and proposing a gentler more decentralised alternative), the Coalition is joining other parties that have long been opposed to this measure.

A long-running war of attrition has been waged against Labor’s plans by Green communications spokesman, Senator Scott Ludlam, who reacted on Friday to the news that the Coalition had come out against the filter with heartfelt congratulations. Signing his letter off with a personal and highly enthusiastic "FTW", he wrote: "The Australian Greens have welcomed the Coalition’s announcement that it will not back the ALP’s proposed internet filter, effectively drawing a line under the hugely unpopular plan.

"This is excellent news and the liberal party should be congratulated for finally declaring their hand."

Meanwhile, in the state of Victoria, the election has taken a turn for the personal on this single issue with the declaration of the candidacy of Fiona Patten, National Convenor of the Australian Sex Party.

Of her decision to stand in that state, Ms Patten said: "By running in Victoria, I have put myself up against Senator Conroy, the internet filterer and Senator Fielding, who represents Christian fundamentalism in the Senate.

"This represents a clear choice for the voters of Victoria. Do they want censorship and religious conservatism in the Senate or more personal freedom and freedom from religion?”

Although in ordinary circumstances the Sex Party might be considered to be an electoral irrelevance, in this election they are well-funded and are campaigning with the explicit goal of dislodging one or more of the Christian fundamentalists who currently hold the balance of power in the Senate.

The future of Australian politics, should they succeed in this aim, will be truly mind-boggling. ®

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