Harradine's impact on Australian telco sector continues

Former independent senator for Tasmania Brian Harradine was key to the privatisation of Telstra, and one of the first in Australian parliament to float the idea of a mandatory internet filter.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

When NBN Co was but a glint in Stephen Conroy's eye, and long before Labor had even considered mandatory internet filtering, there was Brian Harradine.

The former independent senator for Tasmania, who passed away yesterday, was a staunch conservative, and one of the key cross-bench Senators former Prime Minister John Howard needed to pass legislation between 1996 and 1999, and then from 2002 until Howard picked up a majority in the Senate in 2005.

Harradine's vote was crucial to the initial T1 privatisation of Telstra in 1996. This was the first step the company took from being a government-owned telco to the incumbent fixed line and mobile telecommunications giant it is today.

In response to support for Howard's privatisation of Telstra, Harradine secured AU$183 million for Tasmania for telecommunications and environmental protections.

NBN Co is now currently in negotiations with Telstra to access the copper network Telstra was allowed to retain ownership of in the original privatisation in Telstra in order to be able to roll out a fibre to the node network as proposed by the new Coalition government.

In addition to securing funding for his home state, Harradine also used his power in the parliament to push a number of his pet topics, including a crack down on pornography, and proposals to introduce mandatory internet filtering.

In 1999, Harradine supported the introduction of the Co-Regulatory Scheme for Internet Content included in an amendment of the Broadcasting Act that required the Australian Broadcasting Authority (now known as the Australian Communications and Media Authority) to investigate complaints from the public about content online that is refused classification or X-rated. This scheme allows the ACMA to issue takedown notices to content providers in Australia.

Although the scheme had looked at requiring ISPs to block content when asked by the ABA, ultimately the ISP's code said that they must provide filtering software at a reasonable cost.

Later that year, Harradine secured another AU$150 million from the government, and AU$20 million from Telstra, for Tasmania as part of the T2 privatisation of Telstra. The NetAlert advisory body was set up for AU$4.95 million to provide advice and filtering software to the public under the deal, but in 2001 the Coalition government went to the election promising that it would "not impose any mandatory technological blocking or filtering devices on the internet industry, and will not require ISPs to monitor content".

By March 2003, Harradine complained to the government that the co-regulatory scheme had been a failure. He said the ABA and NetAlert were "seen to be more concerned with promoting internet use than protecting ... young people from its dangers"

In response, then-Communications Minister Richard Alston said that the government would investigate filtering of pornography on the internet.

"Some of those filter packages are not all that effective, and there may be better ways of identifying a minimum standard that should be expected. We are on the case," he said at the time.

That wasn't enough for Harradine.

"Is it not a fact that the ISPs have a commercial interest and do not want to see the filtering systems work? All of the ISPs are getting more and more money as more and more pornography is accessed. Doesn't that indicate that those ISPs are complicit in the predatory actions of the porn merchants against our children? Something needs to be done about it urgently," he said.

Alston replied that it would be more draconian to have a black list of websites for ISPs to block, but said there were multiple options to deal with the issue that the goverment would look at, including issuing take down notices.

When Helen Coonan took over as Communications Minister after the election in 2004, Harradine tried again during Question Time to prompt the government to introduce internet filtering, but Coonan directed Harradine to the government's NetAlert system, and said internet filtering was "easily outsmarted by merchants of offensive content".

A review conducted by NetAlert with RMIT and the ACMA found that implementing ISP-level filtering would be very expensive.

"The review also estimated that the cost of this sort of filtering would be $45 million a year to begin with, falling to more than $33 million a year on an ongoing basis. The biggest issue — it is not so much the money — is that such an expensive scheme would not necessarily solve the problem and small to medium ISPs would simply be driven out of business for little or no benefit. What does work is greater information and parental supervision, and those are the kind of programs that the government is promoting with the $30 million initiative," Coonan said.

Prior to the 2007 election, the Coalition government pledged AU$189 million to the NetAlert program, with the majority of funding going towards filtering software for homes and libraries to use voluntarily, but it was ultimately be scrapped by the Labor government.

Despite his lobbying, internet filtering never eventuated in Harradine's time in the parliament, and he ultimately retired from the Senate due to ill health in 2005. In his valedictory speech, Harradine said that his work in the parliament shouldn't be dismissed as an attempt to "legislate morality" because he said that all legislation is a reflection of a moral position. He said he had been committed to social justice and creating a life-affirming society.

"This is why I fought for economic justice for workers and their families against the slavery of economic rationalism. It is why I have defended human dignity against the objectification of women by the pornography industry and been involved in efforts to stop children being exposed to pornography through the internet," he said.

The former politician left the senate two years prior to the election of the Labor government that first put the issue of mandatory internet filtering back on the agenda, and eight years before the Coalition would briefly go against its long-held policy against internet filtering before backing down on the policy on the day it was revealed.

Harradine passed away yesterday at the age of 79.

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