Stephen Conroy has moved to take the heat out of the internet filtering debate by delaying the introduction of the filter until the conclusion of a review of the Refused Classification category, expected to take at least twelve months.

Conroy announced a package of measures this morning aimed at heading off persistent criticism of the filter proposal as the Government heads into the election:

  • the Classification Board will determine whether sites are added to the blacklist that will form the basis of the filter, rather than ACMA, assessing complaints about sites against the Refused Classification guidelines;
  • site owners will be told they are to be added to the blacklist;
  • it will be clear sites have been blocked, with “block notices” to be displayed;
  • assessments that sites are RC will be appealable like other Classification Board decisions;
  • there will be an annual non-government review of the list; and
  • the blacklist will not be made public.

However, the key announcement is that an eminent figure will be asked to conduct a review of the RC category to ensure it is in accordance with community standards. The filter will not, Conroy said, proceed until that review is completed, which is expected to be in 12 months.

The review will be conducted under the auspices of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, which next meets in Perth in two weeks on 22-23 July. Assuming the proposed review is an agenda item for that meeting and approved by Commonwealth and State Attorneys-General, it would not be completed by late 2011, as an inquiry head, a stakeholder reference group and community panels will need to be appointed and terms of reference developed.

Conroy was joined at the announcement by representatives from Optus, Primus and Telstra, who announced their respective ISPs would be putting in place voluntary filters of child p-rnography material as identified by local and overseas law enforcement authorities.

While the filter remains a flawed and deeply concerning proposal, Conroy’s announcement today is intended to take the heat out of the filter issue and that is what it is likely to do.  Hardcore libertarians will continue to object to the proposal anyway, but much of the concern about the filter arises from concerns that the RC category is a poor fit for online filtering and is both too restrictive and a tool for politicians in the future to block other types of content they deem inappropriate for political purposes.

The proposed review — a standard tactic under this Government — won’t allay some of these fears and could be used by reactionary groups like the Australian Christian Lobby to demand even greater censorship on the community. But it does put the onus on the opponents of the filter to articulate their key concerns beyond blanket opposition, and of course delays the introduction of the filter well beyond the election.

It has been clear since March, when the first deadline for introduction of filter legislation passed with no word from the Government, that the filter was not going to be considered by Parliament before the election. Now however, it has been pushed well beyond the election and in fact, depending on how long the RC review takes, may not be up and running until the end of next year.

Conroy’s announcements about the process of blacklisting sites does provide some reassurance about transparency. He will be criticised for continuing to insist that the blacklist remains confidential, but the process he outlined this morning, in which the Classification Board will handle complaints about sites, site owners will be told if they’re to be blacklisted, and internet users will clearly see that a site has been blacklisted, addresses many concerns about the process, particularly for businesses or individuals who might find, through no fault of their own, that they’ve been blacklisted.

The proposed process is also something of a ministerial backhander to ACMA, which was humiliated in 2009 when it was revealed it bungled the current blacklist by adding innocuous sites of domestic businesses. ACMA can currently add sites to the blacklist of its own volition, based on a suspicion a site may contain RC material, and may retain this power under the net filter legislation (which remains unseen), but its primary source of blacklist material other than law enforcement authorities — public complaints — will all be handled by the Classification Board.

This won’t silence opponents of mandatory filtering — and nor should it, because it remains a fundamentally flawed idea. Nevertheless, Conroy’s review of the RC category ends his point-blank refusal to engage on this issue — often accompanied by the basest abuse about the motives of his opponents — and offers a process that will at least enable critics to be heard by an independent party.

Filter opponents should take up Conroy’s offer and start organising their input to the review.

Peter Fray

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