Ill-fated internet filter sacrificed for political expediency

The dumping of the Australian internet filter policy should not be a great surprise from this minority government.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

In the last moments of parliament in 2011, the Australian Labor Party pulled off what was seen at the time to be a genius political manoeuvre — they appointed ex-Liberal Party MP Peter Slipper as the speaker to give the ALP one extra vote in the House of Representatives, allowing the party to cave in on a promise to an independent MP to bring about poker machine reform.

Of course, that didn't end up going so well. Slipper resigned as speaker after the leak of some rather distasteful text messages about female genitalia to former aide James Ashby; the government lost its extra vote and has since made another compromise to bring in watered-down pokies reform.

But it is fairly indicative of the life of this parliament. A razor-thin majority relying on the votes of several Independent MPs and a Greens MP in the Lower House in order to pass legislation means that the government, led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is always on the look to cut deals and make ways around policy that they had previously pledged to implement.

This is the main reason why the government's controversial carbon tax is in place — they promised to not bring one in before the 2010 election, but had to compromise with the Greens in order to win power — and the reason why it was such a political problem for the government before its implementation.

It is in this parliament that the 2007 internet filtering policy was always destined to die, one way or the other. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced overnight that the plan to legislate for the mandatory internet filter he had fought so long for would no longer go ahead.

Essentially, it had been dead on arrival since the 2010 election. The Greens were already opposed to the policy, while the Coalition came out before the election and stated that they would also oppose the policy. Labor simply did not have the votes in this parliament to pass the legislation.

Conroy announced in mid-2010 that he would shelve plans to bring about legislation for the filter until sometime in 2013, while a review of what content would fit under the definition of "refused classification" took place to determine what would be blocked under that filter. The review recommended a much narrower definition, and after eight months of discussions with industry, Conroy used this as his get-out-of-jail-free card to dump the plan entirely.

This morning, Conroy declared on ABC Radio that the original policy in 2007 was not the one the government had even intended to use in 2010, despite comments that he made at the time committing to implementing it.

"You're talking about the 2007 policy. In 2010, I called for a review of the category of refused classification because there had been genuine community concern. That review consulted the public, conducted by the Law Reform Commission, came back with recommendations earlier this year, and we are accepting them."

Conroy's alternative plan to compel those internet service providers who hadn't already agreed to block sites on Interpol's "worst-of-the-worst" list through existing legislation, avoids the need to fight for the controversial policy in a parliament where it would not have passed, and during an election year where the government is fighting for its survival.

On the one hand, the government has always had a good portion of the tech community on its side for the National Broadband Network (NBN) project, but on the other, the internet filter was always a cause for controversy. The #nocleanfeed campaign is still going strong after all these years. Although not everyone will be happy with the forced implementation of the Interpol filter, many will still see this as a victory for an open internet.

The polls are slowly starting to look a little less depressing for Labor, and putting controversial issues such as this to bed will no doubt be of some help in the lead up to the election, which is tipped at this point to be in mid-to-late 2013.

But despite this issue being somewhat resolved, there's still the looming issue of the government's data retention proposal, and by compelling ISPs to implement any sort of filter, there is always the prospect of a potential internet filter scope-creep.

The Coalition will likely capitalise on this perception. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has come out today and said that, despite the "humiliating backdown," Conroy isn't a born-again internet libertarian.

"His instinct is always to control and dominate. This is the minister who boasted that he had the power to make telco executives wear red underpants on their heads. The internet filter has been abandoned only because Conroy has been forced to recognise he cannot get it through the parliament."

No doubt, the Coalition will play up this argument in the 2013 election, and also run aggressively on a platform of being able to deliver high-speed broadband faster and cheaper than Labor's NBN — although, we're still waiting for the detailed and costed Coalition broadband policy.

Unlike the US election, where President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney seldom ever debated technology issues, outside of the concern about the rise of China, Australia's federal election in 2013 looks destined to be all about tech. And with the internet filter issue somewhat put to bed, Labor will look to capitalise on the tech cred from the NBN.

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