Updated: see end of story

I confess to being torn about whether to respond further to Stephen Conroy’s further riposte on the internet filtering issue.  On the one hand, it will start to look like those interminable blog arguments that end up being understood by, and of interest to, only the participants, and which serve to edify neither those involved, who maintain their positions with ever greater vigour, nor any spectators unfortunate enough to be watching.

On the other hand, what the Minister had to say was remarkable enough to warrant further discussion, especially in light of recent events.

The Minister goes to great lengths to refute my point that the “independent” filtering trial achieved its much-lauded (by Conroy) 100% accuracy rate by fiddling with the filters and removing some problematic URLs – by explaining in detail that the trial involved fiddling with filters and removing some problematic URLs.

My original point, lost in the mists of time by now, was that filter accuracy was a significant issue and even the Government’s own heavily-controlled trial provided no comfort in that regard.  If the consultants conducting the trial had to wash lists and rewrite filters to get to 100% accuracy for the ACMA list (which as we know will not be the Conroy filter list), then how will accuracy be achieved once filtering extends its clumsy clutches out of the laboratory and into the real-world, outsourced to willing, not-so-willing or downright hostile ISPs?

By the way, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s persistent reference to work done by the “independent” Public Service, this Government has a peculiar definition of “independence”, which presumably extends to trials set up and defined by the Government, with participants hand-picked by the Government and conducted by Government-paid consultants. But that’s beside the point. Let’s move on.

It was on the YouTube issue where I thought the Minister really did himself no favours. “Keane’s speculation of whether Google will comply with the laws of the Australian Government is interesting, however it should be noted that Google has operated within the Chinese regime for many years.”

While I’m chuffed that anything of mine could ever be considered “interesting”, I had to re-read that because I couldn’t believe Conroy said it. This is the Minister who complained of “being accused of being the Great Wall of China”, directly comparing what the Government proposed with China’s internet filtering.

When he responded in Crikey, the Minister was happy to talk about his discussions with Google about outsourcing filtering to it.  He told Greens Senator Scott Ludlam last week at Estimates “we are in discussions with companies such as Google over this issue. They are experts at deep packet filtering, to give you one example. They are currently probably the world’s leading deep packet filterer, which is probably unknown to most people who are using their sites. They also have experience at blocking material in a number of other countries at the behest of governments.”

Even Google’s announcement that it would no longer cooperate with China’s censorship regime didn’t faze the Minister, who said:

“Google were very happy to block China’s material right up until they found out they had hacked their source code and suddenly discovered that censorship was a bad idea—after they had hacked their source code… We are in discussions and they are ongoing.”

Conroy might now be wondering whether publicly mocking a major company with whom he was in “ongoing discussions” was such a good idea after Google declared on Thursday it “won’t comply voluntarily with the broad scope of all RC content”.  A Google representative told Fairfax:

“YouTube has clear policies about what content is not allowed, for example hate speech and pornography, and we enforce these, but we can’t give any assurances that we would voluntarily remove all Refused Classification content from YouTube.  The scope of RC is simply too broad and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information. RC includes the grey realms of material instructing in any crime from [painting] graffiti to politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia, and exposing these topics to public debate is vital for democracy.”

Which rather undermines the Minister’s attack in his response to me on Colin Jacobs of “Electronic Frontier Association” (possibly related to Colin Jacobs of Electronic Frontiers Australia) for “misleading” people about RC content.  Apparently Colin isn’t the only one who thinks the RC category isn’t quite the neat little box of pedophilia and terrorism the Minister suggests.

The Minister’s spokesperson told Crikey over the weekend in response to Google that “clearly we cannot insist upon Google taking part in a voluntary process. However, we remain open to working with content owners on alternative arrangements, consistent with our policy, to avoid material on their sites being added to the RC content list. We are continuing to discuss the implementation of this policy with industry.”

How any of that will help with the problem of blocking YouTube remains an intriguing mystery.

At Estimates, the Minister made a point of noting that Google filters child sexual abuse material (the mention of which is never far away when the Minister is around) currently.  He may wish to know, and ask his colleague the Attorney-General to act upon, the fact that not merely is there euthanasia material on Youtube, as I have previously pointed out, but the RC film Salo is on there as well, in what looks like a rather nice print, albeit dubbed into Spanish. Perhaps the Spanish version isn’t RC?

The broader point about euthanasia material also took an interesting turn in the Minister’s hands when he answered my point about illegal material that had yet to be Refused Classification by saying “the fact remains that instruction in self-harm in Australia is a crime and therefore content containing such instruction is deemed Refused Classification under the National Classification Scheme guidelines.”

The process of “deeming” material to be RC is a new aspect of the filter proposal.  Currently ACMA “deems” material to be RC under its filter; that is, it doesn’t go to the Classification Board and get an RC ruling whenever it finds a site that it thinks could involve RC material – it decides itself.

One of the Minister’s most persistent arguments against the “thin end of the wedge” censorship arguments against the filter is that it will be strictly RC material only, i.e. mandatory filtering will only apply to a very narrow range of material, invariably dubbed something like “the worst of the worst” and by implication not even as wide as, and certainly no wider than, the ACMA filter list.

However, the “deeming” process to which the Minister refers now appears to open up an additional category of material beyond material that has formally been “Refused Classification” – material that is “deemed” to be RC.  Who will be the “deemer” in this case?  ACMA?  And if so, how does the mandatory filter differ from the ACMA filter, with all its problems, including a notorious block on an anti-abortion website?  Or another party?

I put that issue to the Minister’s office but they had not responded by deadline, although to be fair they had pretty short notice.  We’ll post their response on the issue once it’s provided. Apart from anything else, Conroy and his office have proved a willing interlocutor on this issue.


A spokeswoman for Senator Conroy provided the following response on the “deeming” issue:

Under the existing laws online content is investigated by ACMA on the receipt of a complaint. Trained officials within ACMA assess the content against the National Classification Scheme.  If the content is Australian-hosted, and deemed potential prohibited content, ACMA must send it for assessment by the National Classification Board. If it is overseas hosted content, they may send it to the National Classification Board, or they may determine that the content is prohibited content.

Under the Government’s proposed ISP Filtering legislation, content can end up on the RC content list in two ways:

1) It is the subject of a public complaint
It is on a list of known child abuse sites from an international agency with whom we decide to enter into an arrangement (after rigorous analysis and testing of their processes and procedures).

If there has been a public complaint, a preliminary assessment of the content is made by trained ACMA officers against the National Classification Scheme. If deemed potential RC content, it will be added to the RC content list.

The Government is considering options from the Consultation Paper on approved accountability and transparency measures, which will feed into the legislative process.  One option proposed is that all such content is then sent to the National Classification Board (NCB) for assessment. Only if the NCB classifies the content RC, will it stay on the RC list.

Another measure proposed in the Consultation Paper is that a sample of URLs that are added by process 2) are classified by the NCB periodically to ensure they are RC content.