Aussies Narrow ISP Filtering Scheme to Child Abuse, Violent Sites

AUSTRALIA—Stephen Conroy, Australia’s minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is trying to put a positive spin on the government's decision to reverse course on its longstanding plan to order the comprehensive filtering of objectionable content by ISPs. Instead of being a "backflip," he characterized the reversal as a "win for child protection advocates," according to the Register.

“We've actually reached agreement with the industry to block child pornography and we think that is a significant step forward," Conroy said this morning on the AM program radio show.

Instead of tying filtering to refused classification (RC) content under the previous scheme, which was controversial from the moment is was proffered, "The Australian Federal Police will now compel ISPs to block websites featuring child pornography and abuse using a blacklist maintained by Interpol," the Financial Review reported.

The policy change, Conroy noted, "was prompted by the findings of a Law Reform Commission inquiry which suggested the plan was too broad." The new plan, he insisted, which uses "the existing Telecommunications Act to instruct internet service providers to block 1400 known child abuse sites," reflects a more targeted approach to the real problem—interrupting the proliferation of images of child abuse and other violent fare—that is also a win for private commerce. Of course, as HuffPo noted, three of the country's largest telecos—Telstra, Optus and Primus—"have been blocking the listed sites since 2010."

Conroy's political opponents are characterizing the new position differently, saying it actually reflects the minister's realization that the more comprehensive plan was doomed to failure in Parliament, and, as one opposition spokesperson put it, the policy was scrapped because only because Conroy is ''a control freak."

Be that as it may, the new policy, which could yet become problematic if attempts are made to prohibit broader classifications of sites under the Telecommunications Act, is for the time being a definite move in the right direction for a Western democracy that was headed down a slippery slope of government-imposed censorship. That is not to say everyone was pleased by the decision. A consistent promoter of the larger plan, the Australian Christian Lobby, expressed its anticipated disappointment.

''Although child abuse material is the most heinous element of the 'refused classification' category, said Jim Wallace, the lobby's managing director, "it is just a part of the prohibited online content the government committed to blocking at the ISP level prior to the last election.''

On the flip side, Electronic Frontiers Australia said that while it is pleased with the decision, it has no illusions about the future and plans to keep an eye on the list of sites that ISPs will now be ordered to block.

“The new approach, using the Interpol list, seems to be proportionate, and as long as there is effective oversight of the list of blocked sites, it appears to be a reasonable solution,” said the group's executive officer, Jon Lawrence, parsing his words carefully.

According to a former EFA board member, close attention will henceforth need to be paid not only to the government. “At the end of this long road," wrote Geordie Guy (like as we pull into the driveway and look over our shoulder to see if the baby is asleep or awake), "there’s going to be some loose ends to tie off. Extremist religious groups are going to turn the invective up to eleven and a half, groups whose incorporated name is some combination of this country and the words ‘family’ and ‘association,’ ‘society,’ ‘group’ or ‘council’ will wring their hands. I look forward to taking those fights on, confident in the knowledge it’s just the last death rattle of genuinely awful public policy slipping from the grasp of genuinely bad people.”