No Clean Feed?

So the government’s decided to go ahead with the “clean feed” filtering scheme. This doesn’t seem remotely surprising to me, they’d already committed to it in their election policies:

That is why Labor will:
Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public
computers that are used by Australian children. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.

Unless the tests somehow proved the idea utterly infeasible — slowing broadband down to modem speeds, or requiring wholesale replacement of routers and servers — there’s not really any way to weasel out of that promise. Perhaps there can be exceptions: “homes, schools and public computers” doesn’t necessarily include businesses or universities, so if you want to get the filter box removed from your uplink, there could be a legal way to arrange it, but that’s about it. But anything more than targeted exceptions would be breaking their election promises and giving up their electoral mandate.

Of course, that’s why we have two houses of parliament, and a tradition of not giving the government a majority in the upper house. And with reportedly both the Greens and the independent senators against the “clean feed” scheme, it’s all up to whether the Coalition sides with Family First and Labor to support the bill or not.

Historically, the Coalition’s been relatively good about it, as far as I can see, mostly by deferring to bureaucrats in the ABA and subsequently ACMA.

It first came up, to my knowledge, in the ABA’s “Investigation into the content of on-line services”, which started in July and had its final report of which is dated 30th June 1996 (and actually straddles the defeat of the Keating government and the election of Howard government). The “clean feed” at the time was the “Refused Access List” which was “suggested as a mechanism for restricting the availability in Australia of material that would be refused classification under the existing classification guidelines” and was “based on the possibility of identifying Universal Resource Locators host addresses and the names of newsgroups, containing Objectionable material”.

The ABA ended up recommending that “the proposal for a Refused Access List to facilitate the comprehensive blocking of Objectionable material should not proceed” as well as setting up a task force for investigating ways to limit accessibility further, and setting up an “e-mail hotline” for reports of objectionable material. The report also reacts fairly negatively to knee-jerk responses about censorship:

The RAL scheme as proposed in the issues paper drew much criticism from submitters who mistakenly considered that its intention was the censorship of classes of content which were not currently subject to any restriction. This misapprehension led other submitters to strongly oppose the RAL concept on free speech grounds, believing the proposal would result in unnecessary and additional censorship of the Internet. Some submitters expressed fear than an RAL would restrict access to a wide range of content, including political speech and hence could be subject to abuse by governments.

Since then, there’s been various industry codes of practices worked out, with procedures for filing complaints about objectionable content and getting those complaints investigated and (when appropriate) forwarded onto the police, support for and promotion of filtering products, and giving out advice like talk to your kids about their internet experiences.

On the other hand, they don’t get much credit for it, eg:

  • @stephendevice: Fortunately we have an opposition who won’t stand for this shocking and misguided assault on our freedoms. Oh … damn. #nocleanfeed
  • @renailemay: OK, so now the Greens and Xenophon oppose the filter, all we need to block it is the goddamn OPPOSITION #nocleanfeed #openinternet
  • @Tucniak: Liberals no help to Australian public: Opposition leader @tonyabbottmhr avoids taking a #nocleanfeed [position]

Conceptually, it seems to me like it’d be pretty easy to get internet freedom as a core component of coalition policy — “liberal”, “liberty” and “freedom” are words that fit easily together, promoting unrestricted tubes with voluntary filters at the end-points and police enforcement doesn’t contradict any of their policies; and expecting people to take care of their own families and just coming down hard on people actually distributing child porn seems like a reasonable fit for regional Australia. But political parties are only ever going to do things if it actually helps them win elections, and whether all the online sturm and drang will even make a blip on the coalition’s radar as things stand seems really dubious.

It would be pretty easy to actually make such a blip appear though — send a letter to your local Liberal/National member/candidate and senators expressing your support of Tony Smith’s scepticism of the trial, accompanied by your views on how the Internet should be regulated, along with an actual donation as thanks for their opposition to bad legislation and you’ll likely grab their attention pretty quickly.

Making a similar donation to the Greens in support of their opposition would also be obviously appropriate (even if their opposition to the clean feed doesn’t entirely square with their nomination of Clive Hamilton in the recent Higgins by-election).

Of course, all that depends on whether this issue actually matters enough to anyone to warrant more than some bitching online.

(Personally I’ve just made a small donation to both the Libs and the Greens. I wonder how many people have ever had reason to say that before…)


  1. Michael Carden says:

    Pharque me. If the day has come when getting the attention of my elected representative requires a donation of money, then all is lost.

  2. James says:

    Abbott was quite on the fence today, and Minchin has been against it for some time, so perhaps they’re hearing the signal. The nomination process for Clive Hamilton was quite unusual for the Greens. Other parties worth supporting include Pirate, Sex and Democrats. Plenty of offline organisations have previously expressed their opposition to the filtering, including Save the Children the National Children’s & Youth Law Centre.

  3. Kimberlee Weatherall says:

    Spot on Anthony – in fact, if you read Kate Lundy’s blogpost on this ( you’ll see pretty much the same political analysis on the ‘where Labor is at’ (albeit she’s not speculating about the Liberals).

    I’d agree on the importance of contacting the liberal members. I think they have internal forces for and against a filter.

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