Senate debates

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Questions without Notice: Additional Answers

National Broadband Network

3:03 pm

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I wish to add to an answer I provided on Tuesday in response to a question from Senator Ludlam. Specifically, the senator asked:

Will the minister be providing a retraction to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts, as the answer he gave then was substantially different to the answer that was provided to that committee? Will the minister provide us with a definition of what he meant by ‘unwanted content’ and inform us as to where we might find a definition of ‘unwanted’? Will the minister acknowledge the legitimate concerns that have been raised by commentators and many members of the public that such a system will degrade internet performance, prove costly and inefficient and do very little to achieve the government’s policy objectives?

Given that there was only one minute to answer those questions, I undertook to provide the senator with further answers to the questions at a later time. Regarding the first answer, I draw the senator’s attention to the Hansard of the hearing by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts on 20 October. At that hearing I indicated that we are implementing ISP filtering, taking into account arrangements in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. The point I made was that these countries have introduced technologies that demonstrate that filtering is technically possible. I did not claim that arrangements in those countries are mandatory. This advice was confirmed by officials at the meeting, who stated quite explicitly that the arrangements in these countries are voluntary. At no time did I mislead the committee, as alleged by Senator Ludlam.

In answer to a further question, the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s black list of sites is determined using processes set out in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. These processes involve classification of content by the national Classification Board and include classifications which are determined prohibited. Prohibited content hosted outside of Australia is added to the black list, which is provided to ISPs and filter providers. The government will also ensure that the ACMA black list includes international content of this nature identified by such agencies as Interpol, Europol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

Senator Ludlam also raised issues around the impact and performance of filters. I acknowledge, as I have continually acknowledged, the concerns raised by some members of the public about the possible impact of filtering on internet performance and costs. This is one of the reasons we are undertaking the live pilot—that is, to test these issues in a real-world environment. The government intends to take an evidence based approach to this issue. The results of the live pilot will inform the government’s policy in this area.

The senator also had a question about dynamic filtering and the opening of private mail. The government have made no commitment to require ISPs to implement dynamic internet filtering. This is, however, one of the different approaches to internet filtering that we intend to test in the upcoming live pilot. The government have absolutely no intention of requiring ISPs to open private electronic communications such as email.

Finally, I go to issues raised in subsequent motions to take note of answers. Yesterday, Senator Ludlam asked further questions about the precise approach to filtering that the government will adopt. The government does not intend to make firm decisions about specific issues before it knows the outcome of the upcoming live pilot of filtering technologies and has consulted the industry. The government, as I have said, intends to take an evidence based approach to internet filtering, and the sensible thing to do is to wait for the outcome of the live pilot before dealing with detailed questions.


Richard Jary
Posted on 21 Nov 2008 11:19 pm

Firstly, thank you Senator Conroy for the first real response we have seen on this issue from you or your department. As you will be aware many of us who have contacted our local Labor MPs have been getting the same form letter response (which is now out of date anyway), showing that they either haven't bothered to read our submissions, or have been given a "party line" to follow. I suspect the latter which is disappointing.

Seeing as we are now in a Questions Without Notice forum without a one minute time limit to respond, I would like to ask the following questions.

1) The proposal for an optional internet feed was raised I believe 5 days before the last Federal Election. Understandably it was lost in all the media coverage about Workchoices which was obviously the main issue at the time. I would like to understand though how the optional filter has now become mandatory, albeit with 2 levels.

You state in your response here that material on the ACMA blacklist is determined by "these processes involve classification of content by the national Classification Board and include classifications which are determined prohibited.

However the "Classification Board" as you refer to it (OFLC) only has jurisdication over Australian sites, and has no mandate - or indeed even the staff - to review overseas sites. The proposal as it stands is that someone in the ACMA will make a decision that the material might be unsuitable so therefore will join the blacklist. This list is not subject to any review process as it is exempt from FOI regulations, so we are not allowed to know what is/has been banned.

It should also be noted that there is a factual error in your statement, as New Zealand has reviewed internet filtering based on the UK model and determined it is not fit for purpose and will not proceed.

The other concern is that statements have been made by interested parties both inside and outside Parliament that the blacklist may include sites dealing with topics such as euthanasia and drugs. While these activites are illegal in Australia how do you determine legitimate research against a teen trying to find out information for their own use? While these topics are legal to read about in the published press?

There has been a lack of public debate as to whether they are even wanted. Given the availability of filtering from some ISPs and other family-friendly only ISPs it would appear the takeup is very low. I suggest the money would be better spent on advertising these for those who want them.

As for the technical problems such as overblocking, I realise part of the trial is to determine these problems. However if a (perfectly legal and legitimate) site I use regularly for hobby or business purposes is blocked what is the recourse to get this revoked? If I run a small business on a virtual server somewhere and someone else is running something unwanted there so the IP address is blocked - what recourse is there to get my site back online before I go broke?

These questions need to be seriously considered by your office in conjunction with technical experts before anything proceeds.

Yours Sincerely

Richard Jary
Rydalmere NSW

Richard Jary
Posted on 21 Nov 2008 11:30 pm

Sorry Mr Conroy, I missed one item I wanted to bring to your attention that I hope you are not aware of.

When Mark Newton, an employee of South Australian ISP Internode, broke the story on whirlpool, there were approaches by your staffers to the Internet Industry Association to place pressure on his employer to tell him to be quiet. This reeks of stifling debate in the name of censorship.

This was reported in the media at the time including the Sydney Morning Herald.

I would sincerely hope that you have either sacked the staffers involved in this matter, or have accepted responsibility for this yourself and are prepared to explain these actions to the Prime Minister and the Australian public.

Yours Sincerely (again)

Richard Jary

Rastko Petrovic
Posted on 22 Nov 2008 12:06 am

Dear Senator Conry

I would like to point to a couple of flaws in your statements to the public. First one:

" However, the Australian Government has no plans to stop adults from viewing material that is currently legal, if they wish to view such material."

Senator Conroy, you have stipulated that the Australian Government does have plans to stop adults from viewing material that is currently legal, because you nominated the ACMA Prohibited Content list as the basis for mandatory filtering. The list contains material classified X18+, R18+ and MA15+ as well as RC material which is legal to possess or display in Australia, and was originally designed by the previous Government to track material unsuitable for children. To use it as a list of material unsuitable for adults demonstrates profound misunderstanding of the existing regulatory system, and strongly suggests that the Government hasn't thought this thing through.

Now you want to filter all "inappropriate" and "unwanted" material

Care to explain better?

Then you go on to say that

"This will be informed by the technology adopted in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Canada where ISP filtering, predominantly of child pornography, has been successfully introduced without affecting internet performance to a noticeable level.The proposed ISP filtering policy is being developed through an informed and considered approach, including through industry consultation and close examination of overseas models to assess their suitability for Australia. "

There are no other overseas models suitable for Australia. The only countries which do anything like the Government has proposed are regressive regimes such as China, U.A.E and Iran. There are no democratic states anywhere in the world which practice mandatory Government-controlled Internet censorship. All of the examples the Government has ever referred to are cited here: with plenty of debunking data.
The "industry consultation" has been roundly ignored by the Government: The IIA has made statements against this idea, and its members are on record doubting its feasibility and indicating their disagreement with it, but the Government is ploughing on regardless. What use is consultation if one ignores the results? None of the above countries have adopted what you are proposing. Also I would like to say that there is also the whole ethical position of how appropriate is it for the Australian Government to start acting like the Chinese Government

But then you make statement like this

"We are committed to working closely with internet industries to address any concerns, including costs and internet speeds."
Industry experts, including CEOs from some of Australia's largest ISPs, have almost unanimously come out against this proposal.
The Internet Watch Foundation in the UK has doubted its technical feasibility:
The Government's own study has indicated its unsuitability to application to any ISP with core network speeds greater than 1 Gbit/sec (and, lets face it, most ISPs with core network speeds under 1 Gbit/sec) Even the parts of the industry who support these systems are against making them mandatory

I can only strongly agree with this statement. It is one of fundamentals in our upbringing of children.
"The internet is an essential tool for all Australian children through which they can exchange information, be entertained, socialise and do school work and research. The ability to use online tools effectively provides both a skill for life and the means to acquire new skills."

Statement like this below just makes me nervous.

"However, while the internet has created substantial benefits for children it has also exposed them to a number of dangers, including exposure to offensive content. As such, parents rightly expect the Government to play its part in the protection of children online."

Does it mean that I am unfit parent for my children? That I don't know how to make a sound decision what is appropriate for my children and what is not. I beg the differ. Let me ask you how would you feel if I was to tell, indirectly, that you are unfit parent ( if you have children)? No offence intended by comment in the brackets.

Why such an insult Senator

It's only woolly-headed wishful thinking by people who don't know what they're talking about that makes people think this idea can work at all in the first place, when your own study has proven that and this is take out of Governments document ( chapter 1, page 15 Executive summary ) " Despite of a general nature of advances in current trial and previous trial most filters are not presently able to identify illegal content and content that may be regarded as inappropriate that is carried via majority of non-web protocols"

To conclude
I support the $125m expenditure, with the exception of the line-item for "clean feed", which is clearly inappropriate for Australia. World contains literally hundreds of nations who haven't felt the need to go down this path, and I question why the Honourable Member thinks Australia is such a basket-case that it's literally the only democracy on the planet that feels the need to implement this kind of scheme.
I would like to say that I do not by any means support any kind of child online exploitation but I am afraid that if this legislation goes through that there will be nothing stopping next governments censoring more and more of internet content.

There is an ISP already providing "clean feed" internet called WEBSHIELD.

Why don't you look into it

If in writing this response I have offended you by any means that was not my intention at all and I apologise for such mistake.

Awaiting you reply.

Kind regards
Rastko Petrovic
50A Hines Rd
Hilton WA 6163

Alexander Bakharev
Posted on 22 Nov 2008 7:51 pm

Dear Senator Conroy:

Do you realize that mandatory filtering seriously undermine democracy around the world? I came from Russia. Currently Putin regime is discussing mandatory filtering of political speech over internet. Unlike in Australia there is no question that the main target in Russia will be the remaining political dissent in the country. Australian decision of mandatory filtering is a mighty strike to the backs to everybody who struggle for freedom in Russia. It is a similar strike against all freedom loving people in China, Cuba, North Korea, etc.

Do you realize that mandatory filtering will significantly slow down the internet speed in Australia (that is already one of the slowest among the developed nations). It is a significant strike against Australian e-business that will significantly affect its competetivness.

If you want to filter the https and other encrypted protocols you have to implement a man in the middle attack. Since it will be done on the government level no methods of protection against such attacks would be feasible. Since https is the backbone of any e-commerce it would make any internet banking any internet purchases in Australia insecure. Quite possible it will kill the industry.

There are false positives in any filtering scheme. What would happen with innocent people that would find themselves in the govermental black lists?

Finally, do you realize how easy is to create tools circumventing this filter? There are things like proxies, the images can be altered, texts can be encrypted. Even if filtering will be effective during trials it will be ineffective in a few months but all the negatives will be with us forever.

Shelby de Piazza
Posted on 22 Nov 2008 8:49 pm

Senator Conroy,

It is becoming overwhelmingly obvious that the people of Australia DO NOT WANT your totalitarian-regime-like filter.

The increasingly pathetic cries of "won't somebody think of the children" are becoming countered with "won't somebody start making parents do their job?". The increasing reliance of parents on outside sources to control what their children do is pathetic and wrong. Why have children if you can't accept responsibility for actually parenting them?

We CANNOT become a state with mandatory internet filtering for so-called "undesirable content" and still hold our heads high amongst the democracies of the world.

And what does your boss think of this? Or has Mr Rudd's bellows of disgust over China's filtered internet already faded into ancient history? Blatant hypocrisy never turns out well.

You seem to be incredibly bull-headed on this issue, Senator Conroy. Have you forgotten that you have been chosen to represent the will of the people as a whole, not just the people of the increasingly far-right Christian lobby?

Jason Geddes
Posted on 22 Nov 2008 11:08 pm

So despite the flaws in this plan, despite the obvious fact that the majority of Australians do not want this ill advised, impractical, unethical censorship imposed upon them, the govt is still planning on imposing a censorship more restrictive than what China and other totalitarian countries suffer.
This isn't really about protecting the children at all, its more about the obligation the Australian labor party has to the Australian Christian lobby and deals done to ensure a labor victory at the last election.
Enough is enough , our senators should be focusing on a base civil rights bill for Australians instead of this absolute waste of tax dollars.

David Elliott
Posted on 23 Nov 2008 12:49 pm

Mr Conroy, I have a serious problem with this entire debate. Others have already spoken about the politically damaging consequences of censorship, I'd like to bring up the ALP's responsibility to it's constituents.

The previous government was roundly rejected, partly for it's attitudes towards book, movies, and computer game censorship, pursued zealously by Mr Ruddock and others. Considering we voted them out, why must we now be subjected to right-wing conservative censorship policies from a government that claims to have progressive ideals?

The free access of information is one of the fundamental requirements of a healthy democracy. If you have a problem with something illegal happening online, then pursue the originators of the illegality, through legitimate means. Censoring the internet from innocent citizens is an illegitimate tactic, it is not a lever that is appropriate for a democratic government to use.

Amanda Kelly
Posted on 23 Nov 2008 1:46 pm

Senator Conroy,

I have several concerns about this proposal - all of which are covered in comments made earlier in this thread.

I would like to simply add my voice to the debate and confirm that as one of the general public, I am completely opposed to the 'clean feed'.

It is un-democratic (the processes for deciding which sites are 'unclean' are not transparent), it supports citizens who want want 'the government to do something' without taking responsibility for their own actions (see WEBSHIELD) and will severely limit the ability of ordinary citizens access to legal content by slowing our already slow access even further.

It appears that a minority in the parliament, for whom the majority of the country did not vote, are holding sway over the Labour Party.

Daniel Snow
Posted on 23 Nov 2008 3:13 pm

Senator Conroy,

You claim you are trying to fulfill an election promise by introducing the internet filter. However, in the election campaign, only an opt-out service was ever promised. A blacklist was not even heard of. I have two questions for you Senator Conroy:

1.) Why did you feel it was necessary until after the Labor government was elected to announce a "blacklist" that cannot be opted out of?

2.) Do you feel that if you scrap the blacklist idea, you won't be fulfilling an election campaign promise, even though you did not promise a blacklist?

Awaiting your reply.

Yours Sincerely

Daniel Snow

Brett Carnes
Posted on 23 Nov 2008 3:57 pm

Senator Conroy,

As you can understand there are a number of issues with the proposed mandatory Internet filter both on a civil liberties front as well as numerous technical issues.
One particular technical issue I would like to draw to your attention is the ease at which these ISP filters can be circumvented. This is a key issue as it underpins the whole ideal that these ISP level filters will protect children. As someone with extensive industry knowledge I am astonished at your attempt to spend an estimated 44 million dollars on filtering technology that simply does not work. It leads me to believe that the very people proposing this ISP filtering, although they have the very best intentions, simply have no grasp of the Internet both on a technical and on a social level.

The Internet was not designed to be censored as it has no central point of control. The beginnings of the Internet date back to ARPANET. A network developed by the Advanced Research Project Agency. The network developed by ARPA was designed with one major principle in mind. It does not have a central point of control. Despite the ISP being the gateway to the internet, the same principle applies, hence why ISP level filters can be bypassed in under 5 minutes. A quick google search of the phrase "how to bypass ISP filters" yields almost 280,000 results on how to bypass your $44 million ISP filter some of which have been written by the very people that you are trying to protect, children.

There is also a very common social phenomenon on the Internet called the streisand effect, whereby any attempt to censor information on the Internet backfires. The most well known example of this is the movie industries attempt to censor a HDDVD key from a single news site. This attempted censorship led to an explosion in the number of websites displaying the HDDVD key (In excess of 283,000). This is a very dangerous policy you are trying to implement as the now secret ACMA blacklist will be distributed to up to 400 ISP's nation wide.
The majority of technical experts agree that the censoring of information on the Internet in the form of an ACMA blacklist will have the reverse effect of what you intended.

The Internet is unlike any communication medium and cannot be dealt with in the same way as TV, radio and newspapers. This leads to the question. How do you propose to deal with the technical and social issues mentioned above?

Brett Carnes