The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was published in today’s Crikey, firing back at several pieces run over the last week about his government’s mandatory ISP filtering scheme, including one of my own. I’m very happy to see the minister respond personally and at length; over the last year we have been starved of information on the plan, and the debate, such as it was, has often been in the form of quick sound bites. Discussing the real facts for a change is a welcome development. (Plus, it’s nice to know that a slightly miffed Commonwealth Minister is amongst my readership.)
The fact is that this is a complex policy and there are a fair few misunderstandings out there on both sides of the issue. If I were minister, factual inaccuracies and exaggerations would annoy me, too. Sometimes in dealing with the media it’s hard to get a nuanced point across and things get inadvertently misrepresented. Personally, and as a representative of EFA, I sincerely regret any inaccuracies, and even the “cheap shots.” But it’s no point raising a fuss about them, then making your own. Sure, I slip up from time to time, but to suggest I am “blurring the lines, burying the facts and wilfully misleading the Australian public” seems the sort of exaggeration Senator Conroy is himself complaining about. So let’s see how many mea culpas I owe.
Senator Conroy implies that perhaps the reason Australia’s image is suffering is due to my own rabble-rousing. I wish this were the case, but the Minister has to share some of the blame. It’s an inescapable fact that this filter is censorship, and that such censorship in a free country like Australia is unsettling to observers overseas. The Minister, of course, sees the policy as benign; that’s fair enough from his point of view, but that doesn’t change how the rest of the world sees it. Yes, “Iran of the South Pacific” is an obvious exaggeration – but the filter is tarnishing our reputation.
In my piece I was reporting on the letter from Reporters Without Borders, and their Secretary-General used words I wouldn’t myself (the reference to aborigines is confusing to me, too). However, the anorexia, abortion and marijuana sale examples could all fall under the categories mentioned by the Minister in his very next paragraph (crime, self-harm, drug use). Surely it is a legitimate concern to speculate about what’s at the margins of the RC system? It’s neither interesting nor helpful to confine our attentions to the “worst of the worst”, the unavailability of which is uncontroversial.
This is also a little strange:
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.
Am I being criticised for using vague language to describe the scheme, even though the words are his own, and I’m expressing concern about their very vagueness?
Most galling is the Minister’s outrage at my statement that in the past he has implied filter opponents are “all card-carrying members of the Child Pornorgaphy Apologists League”. Of course, that’s not a direct quote – hence my use of the word “implies” – so I can’t produce such a quote. But how about this?
If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.
Doesn’t that imply that filter opponents are advocates of more liberal child porn laws (they aren’t). Or in answer to a question in the Senate as to whether the filter will be opt-out, the Minister replied:
I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography. 
Senator Ludlam, the questioner, was indeed not suggesting that. So why smugly bring it up? The debate has never been about the legal status of child pornography, and to pretend that it is is, as I wrote, a distraction that simultaneously smears the filter’s opponents. Those are two examples I remember and I know offended many. If you can remind me of any further examples, I’ll chronicle them here.
The Minister’s kind query about my whereabouts for the last nine years seems pretty irrelevant to substance of my argument. As it happens, I was in the USA, and I did not join the EFA board until 2007. Nevertheless, EFA was certainly a vocal opponent of the 1999 amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act that gave us the equally useless system we have today, including the infamous ACMA blacklist.
The fact is, the reason there is so much confusion about this policy is that while it has changed markedly over time, the government have tried to maintain that it was always as it is; and the vagueness of the original, pre-election policy document is used to help prop up this illusion, rather than acknowledging it and providing a more detailed document for the community to dissect.
The minister concludes with the following rhetorical question:
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?
Because it’s pointless, it’s expensive, it’s done in secret, and there are no guarantees the scope will not increase under this or a future government. And these are exactly the points I am trying to make in the public debate. If this is misleading, then it’s up to you, Minister, to demonstrate why that is so.