On the same day that Google stopped censoring search results in China, the Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy published the 174 public submissions it received on the oddly Kafkaesque issue of improving the transparency of creating a secret censorship blacklist. You can see why Minister Conroy couldn’t introduce legislation into the autumn session of parliament as planned. The criticism is comprehensive.
The “Submissions on measures to increase accountability and transparency for Refused Classification material” were meant to focus on how the list of RC material to be blocked by the mandatory internet filter is compiled and managed. A discussion paper put forward six options for consideration.
But many submissions from major players spoke out against the very concept of the mandatory filter, and against the scope of material to be blocked. RC is much broader than child abuse material, and even Senator Conroy’s recently-improved descriptions still give a distorted impression.
Google’s submission, to pick just one example, while agreeing that removing child abuse material is “obvious” said that “a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information”. Google was also concerned filtering may give parents a false sense of security, that it could damage Australia’s international reputation and can be easily circumvented.
“When we receive a valid legal request like a court order to remove content alleged to violate local laws, we first check that the request complies with the law, and we will seek to narrow it if the request is overly broad. Beyond these clearly defined parameters, we will not remove material from YouTube.”
One of Conroy’s key problems is that he’s trying to build an internet censorship system based on the existing cobbled-together classification system. It’s not his fault, but under current law the internet is a movie.
“Australia’s current system for regulating media content has evolved erratically, reactively and inconsistently. The Federal Government has inherited not only the challenges of the new media era but equally the deficiencies of the regulatory regime developed for past media eras,” write Professors Catherine Lumby, Lelia Green and John Hartley in their 20,000-word submission Untangling the Net: The Scope of Content Caught By Mandatory Internet Filtering. The academics, all members of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, argue we shouldn’t apply this old, inconsistent classification system to the online world without considering its “complex peculiarities”.
“The internet is not a medium: it is a whole new media environment which requires us to rethink how we regulate content, protect vulnerable groups and define the relationship between media consumers and media producers,” they write.
Untangling the Net is explicitly cited in Google’s submission, as well as those from the Internet Industry Association, Yahoo and the Australian Computer Society. Its echoes can be heard in other submissions such as that from the Australian Library and Information Association and other members of the recently-formed Safer Internet Group.
The emerging consensus — apart from the submissions from Christian organisations — is that Refused Classification, and indeed the classification system generally, needs a complete re-think.
“The Government will take the time to ensure that it gets the legislative framework right,” a spokesperson for Senator Conroy told iTWire last week. But could that possibly include a whole new classification system? In an election year? Senator Conroy is due to appear on tonight’s edition of Channel Ten’s The 7pm Project.
P.S. DBCDE originally screwed up the links to many of the submissions by putting a backslash “\” in URLs. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser, which is what the Department uses, automatically changes them to proper slashes “/”. But web browsers such as Firefox and Safari don’t, because it’s a potential security risk. The broken URLs have now been fixed, but getting I wrong wasn’t a good look for the Department responsible for the internet.