The internet filter issue has come back to haunt the Coalition at a most inopportune time and the backflip by Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott will no doubt put a smile on the face of former communications minister Stephen Conroy.
Of course, it’s not going make a lot of difference to what transpires at the polls on Saturday but it does raise unsavoury questions about the decision-making process within the Coalition; and the spectre of what might be in store post-election.
Conroy’s national internet filter plans were ditched last year and the wholesale indignation heaped on the plan should have given the Coalition an inkling of how to word its policy.
The original policy document’s intimation of a proposed default internet filter for mobile phones and internet service providers to stop transmission of objectionable material, similar to that postulated in the UK, was an unfortunate oversight.
The careless approach on display here is an embarrassment for the Coalition and unfortunately dilutes some of the other potentially useful ideas held in the policy document.
It certainly put Malcolm Turnbull in an unpleasant position last night, his discomfort magnified no doubt by how vociferous his comments were when Labor killed of its internet filter.
The shadow communications minister had previously labelled the axing of Labor’s internet filter ambitions a major backflip.
"This was always a bad idea. It was bad for freedom, it was bad for freedom of speech," Mr Turnbull said.
"But above all it was going to create a sense of false security among parents."
Well, the backflip boot is on the other foot on the eve of the federal election.
A filter that never goes away
The criticism heaped at the Coalition and Turnbull isn’t going to make the internet filter go away for good.
No matter which shade of government takes control tomorrow, or 10 years from now, regulation and enforcement of behaviour on the internet will invariably rear its head.
It’s a perennial issue driven by the inherent anxiety of living in an increasingly connected world; A regulatory push and pull still struggling to come to grips with balancing freedom of access and keeping unpalatable content out.
University of Canberra Centre for Internet Safety’s Nigel Phair says that while a government has justifiable aspirations to protect its citizens from unpleasant content, draconian moves do more harm than good.
"Where it all falls down is, technically it’s never going to fully work," Phair says.
"And socially, most people don't want it."
The freedom of the internet makes the enforcement of traditional ethical and moral values very difficult. Classification of content is a difficult issue. While some content has no place in our society, arbitration on what’s objectionable and what’s not is not simple.
AVG Internet Security’s Michael McKinnon says the definition of adult/mature content is quite broad, and creates a fuzzy line that makes enforcement difficult.
“Politicians often come out and say that if you oppose an internet filter then you are for child pornography," says McKinnon.
"That’s an infuriatingly narrow viewpoint. If the government wanted to ban pornography, then ban all of it, in all of its forms, rather than draw a very fuzzy line.”
Ethical and philosophical considerations aside, the idea of introducing a default software on devices – a plan that has now been binned by the Coalition – is fraught with danger and, quite frankly, futile. Methods of subverting locks and filters are numerous and most ISPs, telcos and security vendors already provide security options that render the idea of installing a software either in the smartphone or modem as a default moot.
All of the technologies already exist. What doesn’t exist, however, is the motivation for implementing them effectively. This was proven under John Howard's government term with the poor take up of the $85 million NetAlert program, which was unceremoniously dumped by Labor in 2009.
The program allowed families to download free web filtering software to prevent children from seeing inappropriate content on home computers. It failed to get the necessary traction and after Conroy’s mandatory net filter interregnum, the Coalition managed to resurrect it yesterday in the worst possible form.
The real focus here needs to be on building awareness on what parents need to understand about the online behaviour of children, and perhaps taking a closer look on the reporting of online crimes.
McKinnon says the current situation on the e-crime reporting front is hopeless.
“Any law enforcement agency in Australia will tell you that you have to report an e-crime to your local police station, and often these guys have no idea what you are talking about," he says.
The Coalition policy document does have measures that address some of these issues. It will establish an e-safety commissioner, who will build on the work started by ACMA and be advised by the online safety consultative group started by the Howard government.
The commissioner will work with the education minister to ensure that the body’s outcomes are integrated into the school curriculum. The Coalition will support the introduction of an online safety program in schools with $7.5 million worth of funding.
All worthy aspirations, no doubt, but any merit in the policy has been hopelessly diluted by sheer carelessness on the Coalition’s part. It won’t cost them the election but it’s a salutary lesson that the dysfunction in Canberra won’t disappear with the removal of a Labor government.