Senator Stephen Conroy must soon set aside the joys of taking the axe to Telstra — satisfying though that must be — and return to a topic he surely dreads: internet censorship. The report on the filtering trials is due in September. Two days remain. Ravens circle.

The first sharp peck came from Opposition Senator Nick Minchin. On 2 September he derided Labor’s plan as “farce”. Minchin pointed out, as Crikey has, that the trial has been endlessly delayed and has no criteria for success.

The second came from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. In Senate Question Time on 16 September he asked, amongst other things, how much Refused Classification material the filter would block when most is transmitted peer-to-peer.

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“As Senator Ludlam well knows, there has never been a suggestion by this government that peer-to-peer traffic would or could be blocked by our filter. It has never been suggested,” Conroy replied.

Except is has been suggested.

In December 2008, as Crikey reported and the DBCDE web archive confirms, Conroy wrote, “Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.”

Conroy could perhaps argue that both statements are true. Mentioning the existence of technology that might be trialled isn’t the same as saying the government actually intends to use it. But slippery wordplay leads his opponents — especially geeks, who prefer clarity and precision – to fear more comprehensive censorship. After all, the technology would be the same, just loaded with a different blacklist — and the ACMA blacklist is already secret.

A third sharp peck came with the Classification Board’s decision that the video game Left 4 Dead 2 was too violent for MA15+. With no R18+ rating for video games it was therefore refused Classification. Banned. Another reminder that Australia’s censorship system is a mish-mash of politically-expedient junk. Not Conroy’s fault, but he’ll be pecked for it anyway.

A fourth sharp peck came from Enex Testlabs, the firm conducting the trials. Principal Matt Tett told ARNnet that no single option performed perfectly.

“I don’t think there’s anything that showed all good and there wasn’t anything that showed all bad. It was just balanced,” he said. “We never find products that stand out.”

A fifth sharp peck came with GetUp!’s half-page advert in The Australian on Friday. “114,987 Australians say No Internet Censorship,” it began, claiming their petition opposing mandatory internet filtering is “one of the largest petitions in Australian history”.

Conroy says GetUp! is misleading the public and wasting donors’ money.

“They ran their first ad saying that we were going to slow the internet down by 87% – that’s just a lie, and it’s so embarrassingly a lie that they’ve stopped saying it,” Conroy told industry newsletter CommsDay.

“They’re now claiming we’re running, I understand, a ‘hidden trial’… we’ve said from day one when I get the report we’ll release it. So how can that be hidden?”

The advert in fact referred to the “secretive” system, a reference to the ACMA blacklist.

Regardless, GetUp!’s petition dwarfs the 20,646 signatures on the largely church-based petition calling for mandatory filtering presented by Conroy in 2006.

All this highlights the differences between political, technical and social solutions.

The ACMA blacklist was a political solution. A handful of public servants responding to complaints could never keep up with the trillion-page web, as the leaked list showed. But they could reassure complainants that something had be done.

A filter is a technical solution. Even if perfect, which is impossible, it’s only as good as the blacklist. But it’ll make money for filter-makers.

But none of that addresses the social problem: the safety of children. Is any of this effective socially? Save the Children said no.

Whatever the trial report says, however Conroy responds, a thousand raven pecks will point out the flaws. Again. His opponents are already framing the debate.

But unless something is seen to be done, those calling for a filter — including Senator Steve Fielding — won’t be satisfied. Even announcing a brand new approach just gives Minchin an opportunity to complain about delays and point out that Conroy discontinued NetAlert’s free PC-based filters before he’d produced a replacement.

It’s a conundrum. Poor Senator Conroy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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