When paternalism goes wrong

In November 2007, Australia voted to change the party that runs Federal Parliament. For many of us, there were some promising, if not particularly radical, platforms that Kevin Rudd and his new front bench would take as a mandate for their government. One that was barely fleshed out and not laboured much was its policy on Internet Censorship. In short, the plan is to make ISPs provide a ‘clean feed’ Internet that automatically blocks access to web sites that are ‘refused classification’ by Australia’s media watchdog, the ACMA.

Despite the technical bent of this blog, rather than dwell on the technical unfeasibility of an all-knowing Internet Filter remaining as prominent as ever, I want to focus on how the ALP failed to properly engage the Australian online community and ICT industries in reviewing its policy and thinking practically about the implementation.

It all started out when in March 2006, the ALP released its policy on Internet filtering:

Labor believes that the Government should do all that it can to protect Australians, and particularly, Australian children from harmful and inappropriate internet content.

To this end, in March 2006, Labor announced its ISP filtering policy. Labor’s ISP filtering policy will require Internet Service Providers to block access to websites that-are listed as by ACMA as containing prohibited content such as child pornography, acts of extreme violence and X-rated material.

ISP filtering under a Rudd Labor government will be applied to all households (unless they choose to opt-out), schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as libraries.

What reasonable and responsible adult would disagree with the motive to protect children from inappropriate content in their lives? But not long after the change of government, the interpretation of the perceived mandate by Stephen Conroy started to look less like a policy and more like a dogma:

Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy says new measures are being put in place to provide greater protection to children from online pornography and violent websites.

Senator Conroy says it will be mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material.

(ABC online, December 2007)

You’ll note that between March 2006 and December 2007, the opt-out component of the policy had been quietly removed. This was in part to satisfy the Christian Right in federal and state Labor; aside from the fact that governments that purport to democratically represent the free will of the people shouldn’t have secret veto over what they say and do, some folks started to smell a religious agenda taking the reins of the ALP policy.

In 2009, disquiet at Conroy’s plans started building when the ACMA’s process for adding sites to its secret list – to be used as the basis for the ‘clean feed’ – was aired on popular enthusiast site Whirlpool, an event that affected Bulletproof. The entire list was then leaked by Wikileaks – something that may be linked to its founder’s recent passport confiscation by the AFP. Independent stories indicate there are all manner of sites on the ACMA’s secretive list, with no way for any organisation to know if they’re on it and no formal process for removal (if, for example inclusion on the list is in error).

The debate started getting into the mainstream. People started asking questions and wanting more detail, such as on an episode of the ABC’s Q&A program, where Joe Hockey’s uncharacteristically level-headed view and opposition to the plan stood in stark contrast to the paternalistic diatribe of Tanya Plibersek on the issue.

In February this year, Kate Lundy – a bastion of proper representation for the ICT community in the ALP – sensed the rising unpopularity of Conroy’s plans, and tried to get caucus to amend the legislation to revive the long-lost opt-out component. Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd and Steven Conroy remained unrepentant, vowing to push ahead with the unworkable system anyway.

In March, Conroy started to take prime time heat on his plans on the ABC’s Q&A program, fielding some excellent questions before the conversation steered in another direction. Later, the ABC’s Four Corners also covered the issue, giving Conroy enough rope to hang himself with more belligerence in the face of almost certain defeat. But the horse had bolted anyway – even Conroy had admitted there was nothing legally stopping anyone subverting the filter.

Next came international ridicule, with the US State department and the US ambassador taking Australia to task on its plans, citing concerns over freedom and stating that, “We have been able to accomplish the goals that Australia has described, which is to capture and prosecute child pornographers … without having to use internet filters.” China is holding up Australia’s Internet filter plans as positive reinforcement for its own draconian measures which recently lead to Google’s exit from that market.

This month, the Government finally knew the writing was on the wall – the Internet Censorship policy wasn’t going to be popular, and the rising tide of bile meant there was only one option – despite initially denying it – to shelve the legislation until after the next election.

So, what went wrong? Simply, in my view, the lack of proper consultation and the arrogance and paternalism displayed by Conroy and others gave ammunition to the opposing parties to throw mud at the ALP approach and to raise the ire of a great many people. I believe the ALP underestimated the Australian public, now a relatively advanced and savvy online community. You threaten to take responsibility for controlling what they and their kids see from them at your peril. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that although this issue has been around the block many times over the years, this is one time where the average person realised it would affect their every day work and play online, and they weighed in and said “I don’t have enough information, and I don’t like the sound of what you’re trying to do. So I’d rather you do nothing for now.”

It will be interesting to see whether the issue is revisited anytime soon – but for certain this isn’t over yet.

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