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Conroy says filter demise a win for community consultation

EFA pleased by decision, Australian Christian Lobby wants wider blocks

Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, as spun the decision not to introduce a comprehensive internet filter as a win for child protection advocates.

Speaking to ABC Radio’s AM program, Conroy said “we've actually reached agreement with the industry to block child pornography and we think that is a significant step forward.”

Conroy’s argument is that the policy he took to the 2007 election – a comprehensive filter – was not parked by the 2010 decision to call for a review of Australia’s classification system. That decision, he says, was instead necessary because the filtration policy of the day called for blocking of material refused classification (RC) under the classification system.

But RC was a contentious classification, as highlighted by a decision by Australia’s Classification Board to ban material depicting female ejaculation and naked women with small breasts. The latter, it was suggested, could imply the actors were under age, and was seized upon as a demonstration of how RC could be used to block otherwise acceptable material. Innocent small businesses whose websites were unwittingly seeded with RC material by spammers and criminals, and then found themselves on provisional to-be-filtered lists, also showed the difficulties of implementing a filter.

As a result of such controversies, Conroy initiated a review of the classification system. That review arrived in March 2012 and pointed out problems with classification arrangements, including:

  • “concerns that the scope of the RC category is too broad and that too much content is prohibited online, including some content that may not be prohibited in other formats, such as magazines;”
  • “inconsistent state and territory laws concerning restrictions and prohibitions on the sale of certain media content, such as sexually explicit films and magazines;”
  • “low compliance with classification laws in some industries, particularly the adult industry, and correspondingly low enforcement.”

The review therefore recommended changes to the classification system, including a guideline that “Australians should be able to read, hear, see and participate in media of their choice” and another that “children should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.”

A third guideline stated that Australia’s “classification regulation should be kept to the minimum needed to achieve a clear public purpose.”

The review is a 404-page document (literally, not in the HTTP error sense) and contains plenty of other recommendations, but the ones recorded above are apposite as Conroy now says the decision to abandon the filter is not a back down, but a sensible response to the review.

To ABC radio, Conroy said: “Well the review took place, started in 2010 and has been completed now and we've accepted the recommendation. I think that's a very thorough process we've gone through,” he said, positioning the decision not as a backflip but as a win that means “… we've successfully negotiated banning child pornography, child abuse material. We have the industry supporting it. And I think that's a very good outcome.”

That’s not everyone’s view, however.

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted that Conroy engaged in “five years of bluster” over the filtering policy.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), in a media release, bemoaned the decision as a broken promise, as it “did not obviate the need for more widespread filtering of other harmful online content.”

The ACL would prefer a wider ban on pornography and other material.

Electronic Frontiers Australia Executive Officer Jon Lawrence, in an email to The Reg, said “This is clearly a big win for free speech in Australia and we are very pleased that our Open Internet campaign was ultimately successful.”

“The new approach, using the Interpol list, seems to be proportionate, and as long as there is effective oversight of the list of blocked sites, it appears to be a reasonable solution,” he added.

Former EFA board member Geordie Guy also welcomed the decision, but blogged that he feels the fight isn't over:

“At the end of this long road, like as we pull into the driveway and look over our shoulder to see if the baby is asleep or awake, there’s going to be some loose ends to tie off. Extremist religious groups are going to turn the invective up to eleven and a half, groups whose incorporated name is some combination of this country and the words “family” and “association”, “society”, “group” or “council” will wring their hands. I look forward to taking those fights on, confident in the knowledge it’s just the last death rattle of genuinely awful public policy slipping from the grasp of genuinely bad people.”

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