When will Conroy release filter report?

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy will likely release a censored version of Enex Testlabs' report into the technical feasibility of ISP-level internet filtering, in an attempt to minimise the fallout on his political career.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor
Renai LeMay

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Renai LeMay

(Credit: CBS Interactive)

commentary How fast can you pedal backwards while making it look like you're actually gaining ground?

That's the question that our noble communications minister and his steadfast team of public servants are currently grappling with as they figure out how they can distance the Federal Government from its controversial policy to introduce an ISP-based filter to shield Australia from objectionable content.

It has been more than a month since Conroy received a key report into trials of ISP-based internet filtering technology from Melbourne-based testing facility Enex Testlabs.

On the 19 October, the minister promised parliament that he would release the report "shortly" and "as soon as is practicable". A public consultation process was to accompany the release.

Clearly either Conroy's definition of "shortly" differs remarkably from that of the public, or his team is currently figuring out how best to conduct the release of the report and the associated consultation in a way that will cause as minimal damage as possible.

And who could blame him?

After all, the Enex report is likely to go one of two ways for the government; and both are extremely undesirable.

Firstly, it could show that ISP-based internet filtering simply does not work, in the sense that it will provide no meaningful obstruction to those determined to obtain objectionable content such as child pornography online.

This is the more likely scenario, given previous trials of the technology. And Enex's results could potentially go even further — they may show that ISP-based filtering technology has the potential to significantly reduce internet speeds.

This is an outcome that would be disastrous for Conroy. It would expose once and for all the veracity of long-standing claims by industry experts that ISP-based filtering is a waste of time and always has been, in the face of forceful government policy to the contrary.

And it would be bad publicity for Conroy if he were to release a report recommending a technology that would slow internet speeds — at the same time as building a National Broadband Network to improve them.

The second alternative could prove even worse for the minister.

If the trial shows that ISP-based filtering does, in fact, work, it will force Conroy to push ahead with implementing the technology and stand by the policy he has pledged to implement, contingent on the recommendations of the report.

The outcome of such a push would be far worse than bad publicity for Conroy. In fact, it would be political suicide.

The filtering policy is so unpopular in Australia that it has resulted in demonstrations on the streets, with comparisons to China's draconian internet censorship regime, and is at least partially responsible of the entrance of Europe's libertarian Pirate Party into Australian politics.

I anticipate in the next few weeks that Conroy will release a heavily censored version of the Enex report

If Conroy does push ahead with implementing an extremely unpopular ISP-based internet filtering policy in Australia, that will be his legacy; and the history books will ignore any of his other accomplishments in favour of vilifying him as one of the internet's great villains. And, of course, a powerful and patient lobby group will rise to push for the reversal of the filter policy at every election.

It is for these reasons that I believe that no matter what the Enex report ends up finding, Conroy will "spin" those results somehow as being in that beautiful grey middle zone in an attempt to distance himself from the entire debacle and remove the unsightly canker sore from the intense gaze of his boss: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

I anticipate in the next few weeks that Conroy will release a heavily censored version of the Enex report — as he did the report of the expert panel into the first National Broadband Network tendering process.

This version of Enex's document will likely not come to a hard conclusion either way about the veracity of ISP-based internet filtering, or if it does, the language will be watered down. The justification for implementing the controversial policy will therefore be unclear, as will the recriminations towards Labor for attempting to implement a flawed policy in the first place.

This mockery of transparency will allow Conroy to walk away from the process relatively unscathed politically. But the internet has a long memory.

I suspect that this episode will be etched onto the brains of civil libertarians and technology enthusiasts in Australia for a long time to come, as the years when Australia nearly implemented an online filtering regime that had all the potential to become as draconian as that of our Communist cousins — especially, as some have speculated, if it was concentrated in the hands of a single administrator such as the National Broadband Network Company.

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