Stephen Conroy yesterday confirmed that the Government would consider the possibility of legal content being blocked by its mandatory internet censorship scheme.

At Estimates hearings conducted by the Environment, Communications and the Arts committee, the Minister repeatedly confirmed that the censorship trial announced on 11 February, to be conducted in association with ISPs Primus, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1 and others, would be based on “illegal sites” under the Broadcasting Services Act, but that the censorship of other content would also be “determined after the trial”.

Conroy’s statement — which he reinforced when he said that censorship of other (i.e. non-illegal) content would be determined “on the basis of the trial” — establishes the basis for using the results of the censorship trial to extend mandatory filtering to content that is currently legal.

At Estimates in October last year, Conroy emphasised that only material that is currently illegal would be the blocked under the ALP’s policy of “mandatory filtering”, and repeated his suggestion that opponents of filtering wanted access to illegal material such as child pornography.

The BSA currently prohibits both Refused Classification material and X 18+ material, meaning content depicting actual sex is treated in a manner similar to criminal content such as child pornography. The BSA also bans R 18+ material (including simulated sex) if there is no age-based restriction. This clumsy regime means material that is available in your average newsagent, let alone the local adult shop, is banned online and will technically be blocked under the ALP censorship trial. The Australian Communications and Media Authority maintains a secret blacklist which it describes as “the worst of the worst” in terms of child pornography and other criminal material. It is this list that will be used in the trial, although it will extended beyond that to other filtering techniques such as key-word-based blocking. Given that the current regime also prohibits much of the petabytes of porn freely available on the internet, the idea of effectively filtering via a list is nonsensical.

The ban also perpetuates the Ruddock-era ban on alleged terrorist books imposed by the Howard Government as part of its national security-based attack on civil liberties. Academics using the internet to research terrorism-related materials may be blocked if filtering is imposed.

Conroy yesterday explicitly confined the trial parameters to BSA-prohibited content, ruling out filtering intended to block file-sharing and copyright breaches. Conceivably the additional content that will be considered after the trial relates to other illegal content such as gambling sites, websites that “counsel suicide”, seditious material and material banned at the behest of multinational copyright owners. However, Conroy did not limit his remarks to those areas.

The Minister, ACMA and, briefly, the Department of Broadband were questioned by Senators Scott Ludlam and Simon Birmingham, who have both taken a close interest in the Government’s censorship plans, as well as noted golfer Cory Bernardi and Nick Minchin, who grilled ACMA about the banning of an anti-abortion website. Despite his conservative credentials, Minchin correctly noted that a lot of Christian groups backing internet censorship might not be so enamoured of the idea if it was used to block their views on abortion.

On the Government side, Kate Lundy ran interference, asking a series of Dorothy Dixers of Conroy and officials, taking up so much time that Scott Ludlam, who elicited all sorts of confused answers from Conroy and his officials in October, later ran out of time to properly grill departmental officers.

The results of the trial will not be known until at least mid-year.

Peter Fray

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