INTERNET FILTERING: by John MorrisseyNews Weekly
Coonan's cash buys a dud
, July 22, 2006
Federal Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, has shied away from a realistic internet-filtering proposal to protect children and vulnerable adults from being exposed to pornography and illegal materials on the internet, writes John Morrissey.The campaign for mandatory filtering of the internet found an unexpected fillip in the general reaction among Australia's political leaders to the recent furore over Channel Ten's "reality" television show, Big Brother.
Of course, most of the reaction took the form of calls for self-regulation rather than action; but, with the exception of the populist Labor premiers of Victoria and Queensland, leaders from both sides of politics agreed that the show should be axed.
It was surprising that federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan should join Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition leader Kim Beazley in making this call, as her attitude to filtering the internet suggests that she would put the freedom of the individual above the public good. Her response to Big Brother
is a turnaround from the if-you-don't-like-it-switch-it-off attitude which she adopts towards the internet.
Senator Coonan has introduced a $116.6 million package to provide home-based filtering of the internet, ignoring all the evidence that this would be least effective where it is most needed.
Home-based filtering is an inefficient use of taxpayers' money. Only filtering at the level of internet service-providers (ISPs) can hope to address the problem of children and vulnerable adults accessing inappropriate and psychologically harmful material on the internet.
The minister's proposal assumes that all parents are both vigilant and responsible, which unfortunately is just wishful thinking.
Mandatory filtering of pornography and other inappropriate material, at the ISP level, as proposed by Liberal Senator Guy Barnett, Labor's Mr Beazley and the Australian Family Association, would ensure a "clean feed" for all Australian homes, yet would allow adults, should they choose, to deliberately opt in to access restricted sites.
There can be little doubt that vested interests, such as Optus (which is alleged to profit handsomely from internet pornography), are putting considerable pressure on the Minister for Communications and threatening, none too subtly, that mandatory filtering at ISP level would force sections of the internet industry to go offshore.
Peter Coroneos, chief executive of the Internet Industry Association, after uttering some weasel words about sharing community and government concerns, added: "In the end, we are going to rely more on technological empowerment of end-users to make up for areas of regulatory failure, because of the nature of the medium. The internet is not capable of being regulated in the same way as TV." (Melbourne, Herald Sun
, July 7, 2006).
There is not much doubt about where Mr Coroneos stands, yet Minister Coonan has appointed him to the NetAlert board to help oversee this so-called "empowerment".
If Senator Coonan personally shares these doubts about the technical capacity of ISP filtering, she should at least give the trial in Tasmania a realistic chance to achieve a conclusive finding. This would require the co-operation of the largest ISPs, Optus and especially Telstra, in which the Commonwealth retains a major share.
If the minister were sincere in her desire to evaluate filtering at ISP level, she would also look at what has been achieved for New South Wales government schools, where stringent standards have been met with almost 100 per cent efficiency.
The weakest objection against filtering at ISP level - and one which was cited by the Senator Coonan quite early in the debate - is that it would supposedly slow down internet response time and thus would be a drag on business productivity.
When we consider that, according to a recent US report, 70 per cent of downloads of pornographic material occur during working hours, we wonder what positive effects mandatory filtering might have on productivity.
It is estimated that an ISP-based "clean feed" could be provided for the whole nation for less than half of what the minister's unsatisfactory home-based package will cost the taxpayer.
This would remove the need for school systems, libraries and others to invest so heavily in internet filtering, as well as providing a much more efficient system.
If Senator Coonan cannot recognise what is obvious to most of her own Liberal Party, the Labor Opposition and many family groups, Mr Howard should not let her stand in the way of protecting children from what the Australian Family Association's Mary-Louise Fowler calls the "nasty underbelly of the web".