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Sep 10, 2013

Back to the future with the Coalition's Net Nanny policy

The Coalition is poised to resume its history of internet censorship with its cyberbullying policy.

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Let’s hark back to last week’s debacle over the Coalition’s online child safety policy, in which Abbott-aligned backbencher and former telecoms executive Paul Fletcher deeply embarrassed Malcolm Turnbull by springing an opt-out internet filter on Australia for about two hours.

The Coalition excuse was that the original policy was “poorly worded”. So “poorly worded”, in fact, as to indicate a policy position the Coalition has never supported, which really is very poor wording indeed.

Tony Abbott, seeking to wave off responsibility for the stuff-up, said he’d only “quickly” read the policy. But that sits  poorly with the fact that, the night before the debacle, Abbott gave an exclusive interview with Phillip Hudson of the Herald-Sun on the fine detail of the policy. “I might wish that they spent more time playing sport and out in the bush,” said Abbott about Australian kids, “but the fact is they spend hours and hours and hours in cyber space, so we’ve got to keep them safe.”

The replacement policy, however, has some interesting features.

In particular, a new bureaucrat, a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, will have a legislated internet censorship power. The previous government established a voluntary arrangement under which some large social media companies agreed to respond more effectively to complaints about material online, although Twitter declined to sign up to it, saying only it would provide clearer arrangements for co-ordination with authorities.

This is specifically identified by the Coalition as not good enough — it proposes a legislated takedown power that would purport to require social media sites to remove material deemed by the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner to need censorship. The Coalition policy dismisses the idea that it will be difficult to regulate the internet:

“Australian legislation will be effective to achieve compliance by any company with staff or assets in Australia, or which generates advertising revenue in Australia – and this is likely to be the case for any company which meets the definition of “large social media site”.”

The draft rules for the censorship scheme as proposed in the policy are a weird mix — they provide for going to the social media outlet first but give the outlet only 48 hours to respond. The rules also provide that the author of the material would have the right to appeal — before or after the 48 hours isn’t clear.

There’s a slippery slope problem here. Content aimed at harming a child is perhaps the closest you’ll get to an objectively assessable basis for censorship. But the Coalition has form in extending censorship online. Far from being the guardians of freedom and the party that “never supported an internet filter”, the Coalition, when last in government, prohibited online gambling and banned online discussion of euthanasia.

Would they, too, be the subject of this new, extended internet censorship scheme? There’s already been concern expressed about kids getting access to gambling apps and sites. And remember the moral panic some years back over claims social media encouraged young people to kill themselves (despite a massive fall in suicide rates in Australia …)? Or the Classification Board refusing to classify pictures of women with small breasts because they “looked like children”?

“Far from being the guardians of freedom and the party that ‘never supported an internet filter’, the Coalition, when last in government, prohibited online gambling and banned online discussion of euthanasia.”

And there’s a sinister addition to the policy: this new internet censor would be able to “request the operator of a site which does not meet the definition of ‘large social media site’ to join the scheme on a voluntary basis — and may disclose publicly any sites which have been requested to comply but do not”.  Thus, even if you’re not caught by the legislated remit of the scheme, the censor might try to name and shame you if you don’t behave like you are.

The Coalition also proposes to create “a new, simplified cyber-bullying offence” while freely admitting there’s no need to do so because it’s already covered under existing legislation relating to carriage services. However, “many people would not know what ‘using a carriage service’ means”.

Legislation because people don’t understand a word. This is the party that says there’s too much legislation and we need less red tape.

It’s all in strong contrast to the hands-off approach how the Coalition supports for the regulation of newspapers, which also have websites and can also bully people, including children, except they can do it with a vastly greater readership. The Coalition’s legislated censorship policy is technology-specific: newspapers should be self-regulated (to the extent that their self-regulation means anything) but “large social media sites” will be directly censored by a government-appointed bureaucrat.

The one sensible part of the policy is where it states that “keeping children safe online is ultimately the responsibility of parents and others charged with the welfare of children”. But that serves as the introduction to the internet filter section of the policy, which aims to “make available software which parents can choose to install on their own devices to protect their children from inappropriate material”.

Those with memories longer than five minutes will recall that this is the Netalert “PAFO” policy developed in an absurd rush by then-senator Helen Coonan in 2007 (when her chief of staff was new Prime Ministerial chief of staff Peta Credlin). The $85 million PAFO filter was immediately bypassed by a teenager, and its blacklist was also revealed.

As long as taxpayers are paying for such silliness, there shouldn’t be too many concerns. Only problem is, there’s no funding in the policy for a new voluntary filter requirement on ISPs and phone companies — seems they’ll have to pay for it themselves.

That’s the pro-business party of free speech and less regulation.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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