The ALP’s grand vision of a “clean feed” internet safe for Aussie kids is meant to filter out — what, exactly? Labor’s pre-election policy seemed to give the proposed ISP-level filters wide scope indeed, blocking content “inappropriate” or “harmful” for children — however that’s defined. But evidence given to Senate estimates last night suggests it’s little more than what’s already in place.

As I’ve written in Crikey before, debate is clouded because sometimes people talk about internet filtering in terms of child p-rn-graphy and other very-illegal “prohibited content”, and other times it’s about material as wide-ranging as websites promoting anorexia as a lifestyle choice.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy hasn’t helped by labelling free speech advocates watchers of kiddie p-rn.

Last night Senator Conroy confirmed that the trial of ISP-level filtering is on schedule. The contract has been issued; the report’s due back on 30 June. But what’s actually being filtered, beyond ACMA’s existing blacklist of about 800 URLs of “prohibited content”? No-one knows. A Ms O’Loughlin from ACMA told us they “haven’t completed discussions” with the Minister’s office about that.

When repeatedly questioned by SA Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham about the scope, another ACMA staffer admitted that they’re looking at expanding the existing list to perhaps 1,500 URLs.

As Senator Birmingham rightly noted, “1,500 still sounds like an incredibly small number to me, given the scope of the ALP’s policy.” Indeed. It certainly doesn’t begin to cover what might be considered “inappropriate” or “harmful”.

And that’s about as deep as the probe was thrust. One has to wonder just how big an issue this really is when even Family First Senator Steve Fielding made only routine enquiries about the timing of the trial, and everyone else was more concerned about Telstra turning off the CDMA network.

If the (non-)reaction to the Howard government’s NetAlert program is anything to go by, perhaps no-one cares.

Conroy confirmed the weekend news that even after a $22M advertising blitz, only 144,088 taxpayer-funded filters were installed — nowhere near the target 1.4 million — and just 29,000 of them are still in use. A question from ALP Senator Ruth Webber elicited that the NetAlert call centre, still operating 8am to 10pm seven days a week, receives just 20 to 40 calls a day.

For more posts, head to Stilgherrian‘s blog.