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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

CHAIR: I now call on officers from the department in relation to program 1.2: the digital economy and postal services.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I quickly turn to question on notice No. 175 relating to the rather short-lived Voluntary Internet Filtering Grants Program in which you identified that, in 2010-11, $190,679 was spent on the program, excluding corporate overheads. Just what was nearly $200,000 spent on for a program that never reached the stage of offering grants?

Mr Rizvi : That money was spent largely on salaries associated with undertaking a range of work on consulting with the ISPs that had volunteered and on the development of a draft industry code that would facilitate the implementation of voluntary filtering.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was that code ever finalised?

Mr Rizvi : The code is still being developed.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And this is being developed for the industry's own voluntary filtering activities rather than for the grants program that was envisaged?

Mr Rizvi : That is correct. The grants program did not proceed, so there is no further money being spent in that space.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I might follow up a little bit more on notice. I go to the industry voluntary filtering program that is being voluntarily undertaken by industry. How many ISPs are now participating and who are they?

Mr Rizvi : Consultations on that voluntary program are continuing. To date, my understanding is that two ISPs have begun filtering the Interpol list of child abuse material. Regarding, the issue of filtering the ACMA list of child abuse material, discussions between ourselves, the ISPs and the ACMA are ongoing.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think last time we met it was indicated that there were about five ISPs, or thereabouts, looking to participate. Is that still the case?

Senator Conroy: There were three that announced on the day, which were Telstra, Optus and iPrimus. There were subsequently two other relatively small companies, comparatively speaking. At this stage, as the officer has indicated, two have introduced voluntary filtering, and the industry, the IIA, has put forward an alternative filtering plan. It is fair to say that there is a fair bit of activity in this area at the moment.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Rizvi, which two ISPs are filtering the Interpol list?

Senator Conroy: Telstra and Optus. Remarkably, the internet has not ground to a halt. Have you noticed that—the internet is still working?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Minister. Are the other three ISPs still engaged in discussions with the department about—

Mr Rizvi : Not yet, but the discussions with the others are continuing, as well as with Telstra and Optus.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What issues need to be overcome for filtering of the ACMA list as against the Interpol list?

Senator Conroy: Let us be clear: the ACMA list was not what was agreed. The ACMA list is the lengthy list that the Howard government created, so let us not forget that. This is a list which, to be fair—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Rizvi indicated just before that discussions were continuing about the filtering of the ACMA list.

Senator Conroy: For historical perspective, so that people are very clear: the industry currently voluntarily blocks a range of sites that the Howard government put in place on the ACMA list. How many and how much? I do not know, but the voluntary blocking that we talked about was not of the full ACMA list. We made that clear. We have said that the classification RC is being reviewed and there are ongoing discussions. If you were to look at the differences between what the industry has proposed in its standard—IIA have proposed this as an alternative—it does not contain some of the protections that are contained in what we have been discussing with the companies we have been talking to. For instance, there is a blocked page, it tells you where to go to, there are appeal rights and all those sorts of things. A variety of issues are being discussed at the moment.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Excellent. Mr Rizvi in his answer identified that there were discussions going on around filtering of the ACMA list. If that is not filtering of the ACMA list as we currently know it to be and what those discussions are about, I am trying to find out exactly the end point you are seeking to achieve with these ISPs.

Senator Conroy: Let us be very clear: a list of child abuse content is what was agreed to be blocked, not the full ACMA list. That was not the announcement. I am sure you know that; you have trawled over it with me on many occasions. What was agreed to be started, which two companies have now started and three others are finalising preparations for or are in discussions about, was the child abuse list.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The child abuse list as in the Interpol list or are you talking—

Senator Conroy: No, the child abuse content that was identified by the ACMA's component on the ACMA list. It is not the full list, but there are classifications. Personally, I have not compared the lists, but I am told they are different.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Telstra and Optus are currently filtering against the Interpol list—correct?

Senator Conroy: Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The government is working towards those two ISPs and other ISPs filtering against a segment of the ACMA list which deals with child abuse websites. Correct?

Senator Conroy: Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What hurdles are there or what issues are trying to be overcome at present to achieve that objective?

Senator Conroy: Those discussions are ongoing. I do not want to pre-empt them. A range of meetings are scheduled to take place over the next few weeks to continue those discussions. I do not want to pre-empt what those ongoing discussions are about at this stage.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You must be facing some impediments. On face value, if they are voluntarily filtering against one list, it does not seem, of course—

Senator Conroy: They are different lists, as I think we have established, though, as I said, I do not have a copy of either list, so I cannot tell you what the differences are. There are differences in the appeals mechanisms—that is my understanding; Mr Rizvi might be able to correct me on this. The government's proposal has a higher degree of transparency if people are unhappy about what has been blocked than is currently being done, but they are the sorts of issues that, as I said, we are canvassing with the companies involved. There are some meetings scheduled in the not too distant future, but I would not want to pre-empt them. It is always better to have those sorts of discussions face to face rather than between competing senators on the floor of a Senate committee process.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is it still the government's objective to implement this policy as you have described it today—filtering undertaken voluntarily by companies of the child abuse component of the ACMA list? Or in fact are you positioning to move towards these negotiations over the next couple of weeks—

Senator Conroy: No, look, as I said—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, if I can finish the question. Or are you positioning towards these negotiations over the next couple of weeks to have an alternative policy of some description?

Senator Conroy: My concern is that there are a couple of differences about the lists that are there, the ACMA list is based on Australian law and they are URLs, the Interpol list is not based on what is child sexual abuse under Australian law, and is domain based. As an example, domain base blocking can lead to greater number of over blocking scenarios, so the current proposal that has been put forward can lead to a greater level of over blocking, something I know you have had concerns about. It also does not have the same protections, so I would not be comfortable to moving to a system that is more likely to accidentally block material, does not meet Australia's laws in terms of Australia's legal definition of child abuse, and does not have appeal mechanisms, but what the industry has done is taken a step forward, which is something I have called for, and it is a worthy step forward. We welcome Telstra and Optus introducing it, it is put to bed, finally, not that it needed to be put to bed anywhere else in the world, but it is put to bed finally, the completely bogus argument that filtering in the manner we are talking about slows the internet down. I have not seen one report, anywhere by anybody on any blog or website suggesting the internet has been slowed down by Telstra's and Optus' voluntary filtering, so I am hoping that we will not hear that debate again.

So what the debate then moves to is our policy of wanting to put in place blocking child abuse, so that we are dealing with that so that we are able to put into place the proper appeals mechanisms if people are unhappy, but we are also awaiting the outcome of the Classification Review Board's review of the RC category. They have also decided off their own bat to review all of the classification system which does not affect us, but the for the RC material we will see where outcome of that review takes us to.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It is sounding like whilst you have concerns with the IIA proposal itself, that you are preferring a move towards an industry body, sanctioned industry wide approach than a company by company approach.

Senator Conroy: Unfortunately, there is at least two major RSP's that have said they will not block anything unless they are required to by law, so they are not interested in supporting the industry's position either, they have both said they will not support the industry bodies, and they are major RSP's in this country, so we are in a situation where the industry have taken a good step forward and you have heard me call for it, but unfortunately two companies have said, 'No. unless we are required to by law, we will not block anything.' So there is an inherent flaw that some of their own members are refusing to comply with their own code.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of the process going forward, what is the timeline for the government to have at least a segment of the ACMA list as the filtering mechanism and how quickly do you think you can achieve that for the companies that are willing to voluntarily comply?

Senator Conroy: I would probably say I would be able to give a better answer after those discussions are held over the next few weeks. If there is anything more I can answer, I will pass it on, but I will have a better indication in a few weeks. But I will make the point again, two companies have stepped up and are currently blocking child abuse material, it is a voluntary scheme, and they are doing that right now, and the internet has not slowed down.