US reveals concerns over Conroy’s net filter plan
The Obama administration has questioned the Rudd Government’s plan to introduce an internet filter on the grounds that it runs contrary to stated US foreign policy of using an open internet to spread economic growth and global security.
The US State Department has told The Punch its officials have raised concerns about the filter with Australian counterparts, as America mounts a new diplomatic assault on internet censorship by governments worldwide.
Asked about the US view on the filter plan US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said: “The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues.
“We do not discuss the details of specific diplomatic exchanges, but can say that in the context of that ongoing relationship, we have raised our concerns on this matter with Australian officials.”
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has long faced opposition to the plan by internet freedom lobby groups, but the circle of critics has now dramatically widened. Google – currently involved in high-profile standoff with the Chinese government over censorship – and other major tech companies made their objections public last week and the intervention of the US government will increase the pressure on the minister.
In a speech in January US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put internet freedom at the heart of American foreign policy as part of what she called “21st century statecraft”. The US, she said, would be seeking to resist efforts by governments around the world to curb the free flow of information on the internet and encouraged US media organisations to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship”.
Clay’s statement added: “The US Government’s position on internet freedom issues is well known, expressed most recently in Secretary Clinton’s January 21st address. We are committed to advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally.”
In this debate some of Conroy’s biggest allies have been his critics, allowing the minister to place himself in the political mainstream from where he can point to the filter being primarily designed to block obscene content, including child pornography.
But the criticism of the scheme’s design has been mounting, with the US Government and agencies like Google now numbering among those who have publicly declared they have concerns about it. Clearly, nobody is going to accuse either of being in favour of the distribution of illegal content.
The concerns centre around whether it will work in the first place, but also about a government building a system is designed to control the distribution of information. Some critics argue the filter will apply to information on euthanasia and safer drug use. But there are also concerns that it will stop media organisations reporting certain kinds of stories such as on crime.
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey some of these wider concerns in a speech earlier this month when he said: “What we have in the government’s Internet filtering proposals is a scheme that is likely to be unworkable in practice. But more perniciously it is a scheme that will create the infrastructure for government censorship on a broader scale.”
The Coalition’s position is that it remains to be convinced that a filter will be effective.
Now I don’t doubt Conroy when he says it is aimed only at repugnant content. However there have been significant concerns raised by experts regarding the ease with which it can be bypassed and the accuracy of the filtering. And once the scheme is in place it always leaves open the possibility that it could be used to censor some political views.
There’s also the problem, which Hockey alluded to, that it can be easily circumvented. Once the filter goes live we can expect instructions for getting around it to be easily accessed by a Google search. (In fact, you can get some pretty good results by searching “How to bypass the Australian ISP filter” already.)
Google’s concerns on the filter are mainly that it is likely to be ineffective and will not protect children Google knows a bit about filtering content, given its experience in China and its voluntary filtering of content in other countries, such as in Germany where it filters out Nazi propaganda. Today on The Punch, one of the tech giant’s executives Iarla Flynn summarises the company’s objections, labelling the ISP filtering plan “a threat to the open internet” which “robs Australians of the opportunity to make some vital choices in their lives”.
Flynn also points out that other governments, perhaps of a more sinister bent, could point to the Australian scheme to legitimise their own plans to control information flow in and out of their country.
The list of complaints with the filter is growing, as is the status of the agencies that have concerns about it.
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