Communications Minister Stephen Conroy this afternoon said that he trusts Australians to get the mix of content to be blocked under Labor's controversial mandatory internet filter project right, and that the government remains committed to the initiative.
Facing strong opposition from the Coalition, the Greens and the general public, Conroy last year postponed legislation associated with the project while a review of the Refused Classification category of content (which the filter is intended to block) was carried out by the minister for home affairs for the consideration of federal and state attorneys-general.
Speaking in a Budget Estimates hearing in Canberra this afternoon, Conroy said that the process of public consultation about what should be included in the Refused Classification category had begun, and he noted that he is "very relaxed" about that fact. "I'm very comfortable [for] all Australians to have their say," he said. "Here is an opportunity to make your arguments. I trust to the common sense of the Australian public with respect to the classification system."
Conroy said that he had passed on his private viewpoint to the review, notably that he believes that content featuring child pornography, bestiality and pro-rape material should be blocked under the mandatory filter.
A number of surveys with regard to the filter over the past few years, since the policy was introduced, have shown that the Australian public has mixed feelings with regards to the filter. On the one hand, a number of surveys run by the Sydney Morning Herald, ZDNet Australia, Whirlpool and other media outlets have shown stark public opposition to the plan. However, in May 2010, a survey commissioned by groups opposed to the policy have found that most parents strongly supported the filter idea — although the more information they received about it, the less likely they were to support it.
A number of ISPs, initially including Telstra, Optus and Primus, but now including two more — Webshield and a company Conroy described as "IT Extreme" — have already committed to implement mandatory filtering technology on their networks to block the smaller category of child pornography. However, Conroy said today that several other companies — TPG and Internode — have refused to do so. Others are believed to be awaiting the development of an industry code on the matter.
Internet regulation in general
In a broader sense, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham asked the minister whether the government remained committed to the filter project.
Conroy said he believed that the debate over the filter had reached the point where "nobody is trying to pretend" that there is any issue with the filtering technology reducing broadband speeds while providing its blocking functionality, or that it is either under-blocking or over-blocking content. The debate, he intimated, is now about what content should be included in the Refused Classification category of content.
On the matter of whether the existing voluntary filter regarding child pornography might be enough to meet policy objectives, he said: "If you believe a voluntary filter should block child abuse, how would you justify having a voluntary filter not block a bestiality or pro-rape website"?
"We'll be moving to implement our policy, yes," he said.
In a broader sense, Conroy noted that governments around the world are speaking to major internet companies with the intent of regulating the internet in various ways, stating that the argument that the internet should be unregulated doesn't hold water. "If the starting point is that there should be no regulation of the net," said Conroy, "it's one that I am going to disagree with."
Conroy pointed out that when spam had become a problem over the past decade, companies had "beaten down the door" in trying to get governments to address the problem in a systematic way, so therefore there is currently some regulation in place with respect to the internet.
"The internet is becoming a major centre of economic activity," the minister added, stating that the online environment opened up significant opportunities for organised crime, and that it is necessary that governments therefore examine the internet in terms of privacy and security.
"I think there's a more mature debate developing around the world and I look forward to having that in Australia, as well."