Turnbull caught by surprise on internet filtering policy

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to defend an opt-out internet filtering policy he'd only heard about minutes before going on radio.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

After this weekend's election, if a future Coalition government had announced its internet filtering plan, all it would have had to do is to point to the original policy document uploaded yesterday and say that it was there for all to see.

The proposal would have seen filtering software to block "adult content" installed on fixed-line modems and smartphones unless a user called their ISP and informed them that they wanted to access the adult content.

The idea was spawned from the UK's recent internet filtering announcement, and didn't appear to go further than suggesting that Australia should mimic the UK's system.

The policy document was published along with a number of other Coalition policies released after Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb released the party's costings and proposed savings measures.

After ZDNet's first article revealing the proposed policy buried in amongst the other e-safety policies, the man who came up with the proposal, Liberal MP Paul Fletcher, spoke to ZDNet to confirm that the Coalition would indeed implement an opt-out internet filter so it would take the load off parents in helping to decide how to protect their children from accessing inappropriate content online.

"What we intend to do is work with the industry to arrive at an arrangement where the default is that there is a filter in the home device, the home network, that is very similar to the filters that are available today. This is very much about protecting children from inappropriate content, particularly pornography," he said.

At the same time, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was appearing on Triple J's Hack program with Communications Minister Anthony Albanese, where he was asked about the policy and confirmed it to be party policy.

"The filter will be contained in software installed in either people's smartphones or modems, if they've got fixed-line broadband, which can be disabled at their option," Turnbull said.

But shortly after Turnbull went off air, it all fell apart. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was asked to comment on the policy, and the Coalition began stating that it had been badly worded.

"I read the policy last night. Quickly, it has to be said. I thought it was a reference to the ability of people to get a PC-based filter. That's what I thought it was," Abbott said. "There was a badly worded sentence or two in the policy document that went out."

And Turnbull moved quickly to kill it off. As he has said this morning, after the Triple J interview, he sought to exert his authority within the party and have the policy changed, admitting that it came as a surprise.

"The reference to an opt-out internet filter did come as a surprise to me. It was published as a policy by the campaign headquarters and I did my best to explain it, but it was clearly a mistake," he said.

"It's not our policy. Let's be quite clear: Mistakes happen in campaigns; this was a mistake."

What is less clear, however, is why a specific internet filtering policy had been developed without Turnbull's knowledge or consent. Fletcher, who was appointed to head up the Coalition's taskforce looking at cybersafety, has always been seen as a potential alternative Liberal communications spokesperson to Malcolm Turnbull. He had worked for former Howard government Communications Minister Richard Alston, who was the first to raise the spectre of internet censorship in Australia.

He left in 2000 to head up Optus' corporate and regulator affairs division until 2008. He entered parliament in 2009 after former Liberal opposition leader Brendan Nelson retired.

Fletcher told ZDNet yesterday that much of the detail on the filtering proposal — such as who would determine what sites were blocked, or when the policy would be brought into effect — was yet to be decided. It appears to have been an afterthought to the Coalition's 2012 cybersafety discussion paper, added in by the party at the last minute before publishing the policy in full yesterday.

Considering the Coalition spent two years fighting against the Labor government's now-defunct mandatory internet filtering regime, it is unclear exactly who would have asked the Coalition to consider such a proposal. The main advocates for internet filtering, the Australian Christian Lobby, have pushed for internet censorship since before 2007.

Last week, the lobby group published its detailed list of policy responses to issues that the lobby group believes are of concern to Christians. Among the questions was one specifically asking the parties whether they would consider following the UK model of internet filtering. The Coalition's response ruled out including internet filtering:

The Coalition did not implement an internet filter when we were last in government because it was not workable or effective, and it offered parents a false sense of security.

The Coalition has continued to closely monitor and assess whether a mandatory ISP filter could technically offer real protection while not interfering with the internet experience of law-abiding adults. These conditions have not yet been met to our satisfaction.

A Coalition government will not introduce a mandatory ISP filter, but will instead focus on providing greater support for teachers and parents in their work to protect children online.

We support sensible and workable measures to protect them from illegal or inappropriate content. The Coalition believes the best internet filter a child can have is a parent who is engaged in what their children see and do on the internet. We will continue to work with and support parents to ensure the online safety of our children.

It wasn't just Turnbull who was caught by surprise on the policy, either. Although Fletcher told ZDNet that he had conducted initial consultation with the industry, a number of ISPs that ZDNet spoke to said they were not aware of the policy. iiNet's chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby said there was no way iiNet would have supported it.

"It's ridiculous and is a simple appeal to a specific lobby group. It's a political, not a practical, suggestion, it won't work, and would be easily bypassed by any 14-year-old," he said.

"Given the late appearance in the election cycle, it looks a lot like a 'let's push it out and see if it floats' idea. Cast adrift, rather than launched. Floating such a proposal, without checks and balances, transparent processes, accountability, and authority is high risk.

"[Former Communications Minister] Stephen Conroy will be laughing his block off."

It appears that despite the push from groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, one day out from the election and less than 24 hours after it was first announced, the Coalition's opt-out internet filter policy is dead, buried, and cremated.

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