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Sep 3, 2010

NSW Parliament’s flawed porn hunt

NSW Christian Democrat leader Fred Nile says he didn’t access pornography from his parliamentary computer. There was an audit, yes. A flawed audit. Of a flawed internet usage policy.

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NSW Christian Democrat leader Fred Nile says he didn’t access pornography from his parliamentary computer. Maybe he’s right. There was an audit, yes. A flawed audit. Of a flawed internet usage policy.

According to the presiding officers, Legislative Council president Amanda Fazio MLC and Legislative Assembly speaker Richard Torbay MP, a preliminary audit report on 1 July listed “potentially inappropriate” websites that had been accessed through the parliamentary network. This report did not identify specific users.

A secondary report identified “a small number of users with internet usage patterns that may require further investigation” to see if policies had been breached.

“The information contained in both reports, however, is not reliable as it does not provide reporting that would indicate whether a user has accessed a site inappropriately,” the presiding officers said in a statement.

“In both reports, a recorded ‘hit’ includes access to a legitimate site, such as a newspaper site, which may contain links to other sites that would be categorised as adult content.”

NSW Parliament’s Internet and Email Usage Policy says it is unacceptable to “knowingly down load [sic], transmit, communicate, access or receive pornographic or sexually explicit material, images or other offensive material unless there is a legitimate business use.”

There are also two internet filtering policies, one for parliamentary staff and one for Members and their staff. Both block access to the same material: “adult content; gambling — includes online gambling (and all associated sites); gaming sites — includes on line [sic] games and gaming sites”. However while parliamentary staff are automatically blocked from accessing this material without prior approval, this filtering is only applied to Members’ offices if they request it.

All three policies say that internet usage is logged – which presumably makes it legal – but there are still privacy concerns.

“It doesn’t appear that they had terribly clear objectives when they started out with the audit, and as a result they’ve got information that doesn’t help them very much,” the chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, Professor Roger Clarke, told Crikey this morning.

Clarke says parliament may have been “ignorant” about the practicalities of studying people’s internet behaviour. “Pages that you visit are seldom what they seem … All of this referral nonsense means there’s all sorts of things appearing on your page.”

“There are all manner of things that can be judged to be ‘adult content’. Speech and patterns of speech can be judged to be adult content. What on earth are we doing filtering things like that, especially in a parliament?”

The filtering policies also state that “the Parliament may monitor information, files or usage on a random or continuous basis” to ensure compliance with policies, investigate conduct that’s illegal or may “adversely affect the Parliament, its Members or its employees”, or to prevent inappropriate or excessive personal use. Records of internet usage are retained for seven years.

“The period of retention sounds to me to be ridiculously long,” Clarke told Crikey.

“I would have thought that there are grounds for retention over the relatively short term, and I’m talking here in terms of a month or two, not seven years.”

Crikey understands that Parliament’s presiding officers are working on another statement, to be released “as soon as practicable”.

Stilgherrian —


Technology writer and broadcaster

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23 thoughts on “NSW Parliament’s flawed porn hunt

  1. Syd Walker

    This is a story that gives and gives.

    Well done for introducing the privacy issue. Amazingly, I think it’s the first time I’ve noticed the angle mentioned in any of the reports so far . That says something about the culture we’ve created for ourselves.

    The comment by Professor Roger Clark sums it up for me really: “What on earth are we doing filtering things like that, especially in a parliament?”

    Mainstream politicians, who’ve for so long pandered to moral panics over the internet and pornography, are now getting a taste of the same kind of repressive medicine they’ve been all too willing to prescribe for the rest of us. I hope they learn the right lessons.

    Meanwhile, one of the nation’s leading protagonists behind successive moral panics over these topics, confronted with evidence that his own office computer has raunchier weblogs than most (in what appears to be a highly-sexed Parliament!), claims his office accesses pornography only for ‘research’ purposes!!!

    Is that ‘defense’ available to others Reverend Nile – or just to you and your employees?

    To put his good character beyond doubt, Fred Nile could publish his weblogs. Detailed analysis might establish whether the viewer was enjoying the experience or not. Challenged to do so, he’d doubtless use the Conroyesque argument that he can’t, because it would encourage others to view wicked internet destinations.

    That’s where Conroy’s great innovation – the ‘retired judge’ – comes into its own. How about a retired judge analysing Fred Nile’s weblogs to assess the veracity of his ‘research’ claim?

    I wonder… would former High Court Justice Michael Kirby like the job?

    Kirby could also be tasked to carry out spot-checks on the weblogs of parliamentarians whose erratic behaviour arouses suspicion. He might well want to check out Bill Heffernan’s weblogs, for example. And Stephen Conroy’s?

    Justice Kirby could report regularly, in general terms, on the more novel parliamentary weblogs. He tells a great yarn and his reports to the nation would be very entertaining.

    Above all, he help answer the mystery so crucial to the nation’s future: when politicians view pornography, is it really the devil’s work or a virtuous act of self-sacrifice?

  2. Stilgherrian

    This morning The Australian is saying the parliamentary audit counted news.com.au and smh.com.au as adult sites because they contain advertisements for and links to “adult” dating sites. The more we dig into this audit, the more stupid it sounds.

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