The government is sensitive to potential debates about internet filtering, documents obtained under freedom of information law reveal.
In the Coalition’s 2013 initial policy document around children’s safety online, released two days before the 2013 election, the then-opposition proposed an opt-out internet filter that, similar to the UK’s model, would require users to tell their ISP if they wanted to be able to access online pornography -- otherwise adult websites would be blocked.
After this policy was exposed by technology news website ZDNet, then-opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull announced within hours that the policy was “poorly worded and incorrect” and the Coalition remained opposed to internet filtering.
One key component of that policy document that remained was the appointment of a Children’s eSafety Commissioner, charged with reducing incidents of bullying of children online.
The first eSafety Commissioner appointed was Alastair MacGibbon, who recently left the role to be a special cybersecurity adviser to Turnbull, now Prime Minister.
When Turnbull became Prime Minister he shuffled portfolio responsibility for “censorship” (now called classification), which nominally includes internet filtering, from the Attorney-General’s Department to Communications. This now sits with the eSafety Commissioner, which, as Crikey has previously reported, has also been investigating movie titles being sold by adult shops across Australia.
In documents obtained by Crikey under freedom of information, when this changeover happened, the government was aware that it would likely mean that there would again be a push “to open up debate about filtering internet pornography” -- but, according to an incoming brief, it was considered this would be out of the scope of the eSafety Commissioner role.
Indeed, not long after MacGibbon was appointed eSafety Commissioner, fringe group The Australian Family Association wrote to MacGibbon in July, calling on him to implement a UK-style internet filter.
MacGibbon responded by stating any requests for internet filtering should be directed to the Department of Communications.
When a Senate committee, led by former Labor senator Joe Bullock -- who resigned from the Senate because of Labor’s marriage equality policy -- commenced an inquiry into pornography, MacGibbon wrote to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield suggesting changing the wording of the terms of reference of the committee to move away from “the impact on children from unobstructed access to pornography online” to “trends of online consumption of pornography by children and their impact on the development of healthy and respectful relationships”.
MacGibbon said this would “dovetail nicely with [domestic violence] work and also sexting” while there were “sensitivities around the concept of filtering for pornography (the politics and the actual efficacy)”. MacGibbon asked Fifield if the Coalition’s policy opposing filtering remained the same.
Fifield replied to the email stating “we are on the same page”.
The inquiry did not deliver its findings before Parliament was dissolved for the election. The eSafety Commissioner’s submission recommended education and parental control tools rather than internet filtering.
Unfortunately, many of the documents released by the eSafety Commissioner’s office under FOI law regarding censorship policy have been censored on the grounds they contained “deliberative material” regarding advice from the department to Fifield on censorship policy.