Greens accuse Conroy of fudging facts over content filter trials

Do the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France and Canada have mandatory Internet filtering, as Senator Stephen Conroy suggests? The Greens think not.

Federal Communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy has dodged a question by the Greens, who claimed he said in an October Senate estimates hearing that countries such as Sweden and Canada had mandatory Internet filtering systems similar to those now being trialled in Australia, when in fact they don’t.

Instead, during question time on Tuesday, Conroy responded: “ISPs in a number of Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France and Canada, have voluntarily introduced ISP-level filtering. The government is of course considering the experience of these countries in the development of its own policy. This international experience will also inform the government’s upcoming real-world, live pilot.”

Conroy continued for the next few minutes to offer details about the content filter trial, to which Greens Senator Scott Ludlam replied with several further follow-up questions.

“I thank the minister for his attempt to answer the question… Will the minister be providing a retraction to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts, as the answer he gave then was substantially different to the answer that was provided to that committee?”

“The senator asked a very large range of questions, which it would be impossible for me to answer in one minute,” Conroy said. “I will happily get you some further information on that very long list of questions.”

However, although Conroy did not fully respond, it does appear the question was unfairly asked as at no time in the estimates hearing did Conroy himself make the correlation between Australia and the above mentioned countries. However, Abul Rizvi, deputy secretary, broadcasting, regional strategy, digital economy and corporate from the DBCDE, and present at the estimates hearing in October, did make the comment that filtering in the United Kingdom means “the consumer does not have the option of opting out”.

In his earlier response to Ludlam, Conroy offered some details about the content filtering pilot. He said it will specifically test filtering against the ACMA black list of prohibited internet content, which is “mostly” child pornography, as well as filtering of other unwanted content.

“While the ACMA black list is currently around 1300 URLs, the pilot will test against this list as well as filtering for a range of URLs to around 10,000 so that the impacts on network performance of a larger black list can be examined. The live pilot will provide valuable real-world evidence of the potential impact on internet speeds and costs to industry and will help ensure we implement a filtering solution that is efficient, effective and easy for Australian families to use.”

But despite opposition to the content filtering trial, which is also supported by a Computerworld petition, Conroy is unwavering in his commitment.

The government announced this week that expressions of interest are now being called from ISPs interested in participating in the pilot. Applications are due by Monday 8 December 2008. According to information on the Communications department pilot Web site, participation is restricted to those ISPs that provide a service to persons resident in Australia.

The pilot is expected to commence before the end of the year and and ideally, ISPs will participate in it for a minimum of 6 weeks.

“The pilot is an opportunity for the Australian industry to now come forward and engage directly with the Australian government in the development of ISP filtering. I strongly urge industry to become involved,” said Conroy.

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Howard Dahdah

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