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Federal

Dec 23, 2009

Stephen Conroy: Dear Crikey, here's why you're wrong

It's fighting words from Senator Stephen Conroy as he rebuts the "disingenuous" coverage of his Great Firewall of Australia. You can't access RC-rated content in newsagencies, libraries, DVDs, cinemas or on TV, so why should it be allowed on the internet? asks Conroy.

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In these times of bloggers, citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, quality journalism is under threat. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Crikey.

Its coverage over the past week with regard to the government’s announcement on ISP level filtering has been nothing short of disingenuous.

The government has been clear that mandatory filtering will only be implemented for RC-rated content. This content is illegal to display, distribute, sell or make available for hire under existing Australian law. RC-rated content is not available in newsagencies, it is not on the library shelves, you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema and it is not shown on television.

Bernard Keane put forward his views in his article Net filtering won’t work, so what is Conroy up to?

Clearly, Keane doesn’t think the government should try to limit exposure to RC-rated material online. He is entitled to his opinion. In arguing his position, however, he makes a number of errors that should be corrected.

Keane claims “the trial saw up to 3.4% of content wrongly blocked”. The trial showed that a defined list of URLs — which is how the mandatory component of filtering would be done — was achieved by all technologies tested with 100% accuracy.

The figure he quotes of 3.4% refers to the testing for the optional filtering of a wider range of content as decided by families. The performance of the various technologies was tested against additional lists of content developed by Enex for innocuous and inappropriate content. Many families may be prepared to accept some over-blocking to have a wider range of material blocked. This is a choice for the family or individual.

Keane argues “the trial … saw speed reductions of 30-40%”. In fact one technology tested in the trial returned this result while the remaining technologies returned a figure of less than 10%. Enex has described a result of less than 10% as negligible impact and Telstra has put it into real-time as one seventieth of a blink of an eye”.

Enex explains in the report the filter that got the higher level of degradation used “pass through” technology and the content list was maintained overseas, which may explain the higher level. The government will not mandate what technology an ISP should use and clearly it would make no sense for an ISP to choose the worst-performed product unless these issues could be overcome.

Keane argues the government’s announcement is based on “the big lie, that filtering works” because it can be circumvented. The government has never claimed that filtering cannot be circumvented and has continually explained that it is just one part of a range of measures designed to make the internet a safer place.

Yes people will use means other than the web to trade in child pornography and other vile material, and that is why the government has also committed $49 million for additional federal police officers to the Child Protection Unit and a further $11 million for prosecution.

Keane then attacks the existing classification laws, which is refreshing in that he is one of the few critics to acknowledge the internet is currently subject to censorship. Keane is wrong though when he argues that “www.childpr0n.com would be blocked under both [the RC content list and the current ACMA blacklist], [whilst] trying to inform the terminally ill about options for euthanasia online would be blocked under one but not the other”.

Such content is RC and would therefore be included on both the ACMA blacklist under the existing laws and the RC content list under the new scheme.

He argues “how would you know whether you were blocked under mandatory filtering” or under the current legislative framework? In the government’s public consultation paper on approved transparency and accountability measures — one option put forward is the use of block pages which would notify the user that the material they are trying to access has been blocked because it has been deemed to be RC content. It would only be blocked under existing laws if you were using a PC filter that filters the ACMA blacklist or some other form of self applied filtering.

I understand that people feel passionately about this issue but if you want to have a reasoned debate you need to have the facts straight. Bernard Keane could start by looking at the FAQ on the department’s website.

Then we had the case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story with Stilgherrian’s “The swift takedown of stephenconroy.com.au.

Stilgherrian wrote about a fake Stephen Conroy website having the domain deleted by the industry self-regulatory body auDA where he asked, “Did Senator Conroy or someone in his office pressure auDA for a quick result?”

Stilgherrian had the answer to this question but clearly he didn’t like the answer so he chose to ignore it. He contacted my office at 7am on Tuesday asking whether anyone from the office had asked auDA to take action on stephenconroy.com.au.

At 11.19am he was provided with the following response: “The Minister’s office made no request and took no other action in relation to the domain stephenconroy.com.au” and was referred to auDa regarding their policies.

Stilgherrian replied and made no reference to the response being close to deadline or being too late to pull the story to at least add the response. (See the full exchange here.).

Despite including my office’s response in the “Corrections” section the following day, the fact remains that, in having the answer that my office had made no request well before deadline, but still proceeding with an entire article based on the suggestion that I or my office had requested action, Stilgherrian is either calling me a liar or he has decided to deliberately ignore the response so that he can write the story he wants to write anyway.

But he didn’t stop there with making up the facts to suit his story. He then drew a correlation to allegations run by Asher Moses in the Sydney Morning Herald when he said “Conroy’s policy advisor Belinda Dennett did try to silence one of Conroy’s critics, network engineer Mark Newton.”

At the time Asher Moses, a vocal critic of ISP filtering, made these allegations my office advised him that this simply did not happen and he had been misinformed. That Moses ran the story with the allegation anyway seems to be enough of a “fact” for Stilgherrian to repeat whenever he feels it helps his story.

And then there was Colin Jacobs article Reporters without Borders: Don’t Do it Rudd.

Interestingly Colin Jacobs, who has been spruiking his views on the government’s position, blurring the lines, burying the facts and wilfully misleading the Australian public, makes the point that the international coverage is “not a good look” and that Australia is “gaining a reputation as the Iran of the South Pacific”.

The irony in this is that it is Colin Jacobs himself who has been out there whipping the media into a frenzy; with his loose use of language and most extraordinary misrepresentations it is no wonder he has managed to get global attention.

The government has made it very clear that its policy will see online content that is RC-rated according to the National Classification Scheme criteria is the only content that will be blocked.

Jacobs argues that the government’s policy will “block access to inappropriate websites”, the same language he criticised the government for using months ago as being unclear.

While much of the commentary has referred to the blocking of websites we should make it very clear that the RC content list will only include URLs. URL’s lead to specific pages on a website and only if those pages contain RC-rated content will they be added to the list.

Jacobs quotes the letter written by Reporters Without Borders to the Prime Minister that subjects such as “abortion, anorexia, Aborigines and legislation on the sale of marijuana would risk being filtered as would media reports on these issues.”

This is just misrepresentation designed to mislead the public. The elements the National Classification Board looks at to assess these include sx, violence, matters of an abhorrent nature, instruction in crime and instruction in violence. The only way these subject matters RWB have outlined would fall into the RC category would be if they included step-by-step instruction in self harm or were extremely violent. It is hard to see how legislation or websites about Aborigines would be included.

Jacobs then demonstrates just how he has managed to get worldwide attention with his outrageous claim that I have “attempt[ed] [to] deflect criticism by implying filter opponents were all card-carrying members of the Child Pornorgaphy Apologists League”. I have never made this comment and I challenge Jacobs to provide evidence of such a quote. It seems that if Jacobs makes the claim often enough, without pointing to any evidence, he will convince people — including the RWB.

If regulation or so called censorship of the internet has got Colin Jacobs so enraged with the government’s recent announcement, where has he been for the past nine years where the internet in Australia has been regulated far more heavily. The government’s filtering policy applies only to the worst of the worst content hosted overseas which brings it into line with what has been going on in Australia for the past nine years without the outrage.

Let me repeat the government has been clear that mandatory filtering will only apply to RC-rated content. This content is not available in newsagencies, on library shelves, at the cinema or on DVD and you certainly can’t watch it on TV. Why shouldn’t Australian ISPs be required to block access to such content?

I am happy to debate the merits of this policy and listen to the genuine concerns of Australians but let’s ensure people have the facts and not build campaign based on disingenuous misrepresentations. As recently as today I have read articles that claim mandatory filtering will include content that is rated X18+. I suggest people you are interested in the facts go to my department’s website where they can read the FAQ’s www.dbcde.gov.au

I wish Crikey and all its readers a very merry Christmas.

CRIKEY ED: Just to be clear, Stilgherrian did forward the response from Conroy to Crikey but the addition was missed in the production process, the fault was ours, not Stilgherrian’s. Conroy’s office has now been informed of this.

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