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Monday, 24 May 1999
Page: 5209


Senator LUNDY (8:07 PM) —The Senate Select Committee on Information Technology was re-formed with the specific intention of dealing with the issue of Internet censorship. Its structure was biased towards government opinions from the outset and, regardless of the numerous submissions which demonstrated the unworkability of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 , the report that the committee produced unsurprisingly concurred with the government's initial position. This contrasted sharply with the Labor opposition's analysis and the views presented in our minority report.

In this debate there are two primary interest groups: those who are online, notably, the information `haves', and those who are not online, the information `have nots'. Despite three years of governance under the coalition, the divide between these two groups in our society has become only wider. They have professed that their legislation will make the Internet a safe zone for minors—a zone free from pornography, free from bomb-making recipes and free from other social nasties. They have led those people who are not online to believe that technological solutions currently exist which would implement these changes without compromising the quality or delivery of online content suitable for viewing by minors. In doing this, however, the government has permanently marginalised the online community.

Through the placing of the onerous burden of this legislation on the sector instead of empowering end users to deal with the accessibility and nature of online content the government has alienated the online constituency. On the one hand, the actions of this government, in directing the debate at social values rather than at technical feasibility, have created a situation where it has been prepared to allow very little attention to be given to the Australian community with hardly any political debate at all about the social implications of the Net—the social policy that so fundamentally underpins where we need to go forward as a society in relation to the Internet—and at the same time it has appealed to this same group of people, who mostly need to learn about what these implications are and, most importantly, to be given the opportunity to participate in an active and comprehensive way in the information society. The government is trying to have it both ways. The other side of the argument is technical feasibility. Anyone who is involved in the political debates surrounding the Internet and its implications knows how easy it is to hide behind technical jargon to baffle those who have an interest in social policy.

With respect to this bill, the government has chosen to move in a direction where it appeals to those in the community who are not full participants in the online debate. However, it seems to reassure them with a bill that is technically flawed. The ALP's position in response to this strategy has been one of damage control. We have put forward amendments that will seek to make this bill at least workable and honest in the first instance, recognising that the government's intention is not able to be fully implemented by virtue of this legislation. The ALP's position of damage control has arisen out of our sense of social responsibility towards those in our community, be they online or not. From the start of not only this debate but our period in opposition to this coalition government we have continually stated the need for the issue of equity of access to the Internet and to new information technologies to be at the forefront of these debates, not at the back-end where this coalition government is so intent on placing them.

On the day that this bill was introduced, a virtual storm erupted in cyberspace, and the potential amongst the Australian community for an online democracy—or cyberdemocracy —was recognised. This followed the pattern of international debates around the issue of censorship online, and many Australians seized the opportunity for the first time to take part directly in the political debate that ensued. The floodgates opened and emails poured forth, and every citizen was given real-time access to his or her political representatives. The hierarchy of political lobbyists versus community members and their accessibility to politicians was completely dismantled.

In contrast with the government's lack of consultation on this bill with the online community, Labor has actively sought the opinions of Internet users. On my own site we posted a survey which asked certain questions. Do you support the intent of the bill? Do you not support the intent of the bill? Do you support the intent of the bill but not support the methodologies proposed in the legislation? The responses to these were overwhelmingly against the position that the government had presented in the bill but, interestingly, there was not outright opposition to the intent, as the government would have many in this place believe. In fact, the online community is concerned about the availability of unsuitable material to minors in this country, and they indicated that to me clearly.

This group of informed voters have the knowledge, the expertise, the experience and the insight to know that the government's proposals—the technical back-end to its bill—were completely unworkable and as such a con for those in the community who were seeking reassurance that they would be protected. Overwhelmingly, the online constituency does not support the government's approach. What they do support is the position put forward by Labor. They support the empowerment of end users. That means education, the opportunity to participate in the information society and the ability for end users to take control of the situation and make decisions according to their social values and to choose how to raise their children.

However, with respect to this bill, it is clear that the government is charged with a moral conservatism that has presented itself in this chamber in a very narrow way. It has presented itself amidst a cynical government strategy to bring forth a bill for debate that the committee was hardly given the time to explore. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 has had the fastest conceivable passage in this place, particularly in the context of some of the major debates confronting the federal parliament, including the GST, Telstra and, of course, the appropriation bills relating to the budget that has just been handed down.

Throughout this debate, the Liberal government has used provocative language and attempted to portray the public debate as being either pro-porn or anti-porn. This attempt at dumbing down the debate and manipulating the public through emotive claims like, `Your children will be exposed to drugs, paedophilia and bomb making unless this bill is passed,' is both condescending and foolish. Labor will not be drawn into the government's spin. We have approached this bill, since its introduction, with the belief that if the government's aim is to restrict the access of minors to unsuitable online content then the best and most effective way to do this is through informed and educated control of the Internet at end user level.

The approach that the government has used in relation to the online services bill has meant that the cultural implications of the use of filtering technologies and the impacts of these in relation to civil liberties have been completely ignored. Current filtering techniques are wide open to what we could call `collateral damage', and that is the term that is used to describe the inadvertent blocking of appropriate Internet content. This situation arises when key words, such as `breast', that are often used to identify pornographic or other sites unsuitable for viewing by minors trigger the blocking of sites which may in fact contain community or health information of high educational value on issues such as breast cancer.

Since the inception of this bill, I have had numerous representations made to me on behalf of a range of community based organisations that deal with issues such as HIV-AIDS, cancer of the breast or prostate, and legal and illicit drug information provision. One common concern that has been expressed to me by all of these groups is the potential that this bill will lead to the blocking of access of minors and other users to material which is highly educative and has the potential to save lives. Representations were made to the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies with respect to this. In particular, the statement made by the Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights best illustrates this point. They said:

The ACLGR believes that the application of these proposals will result in entrenched inappropriate blocking and deletion of information of interest and assistance to the lesbian and gay community. We are concerned about blocking of access to information that is health and welfare related.

Labor has long held the view that the social challenges presented by the Internet need far more attention than the compressed and flawed inquiry that we have been involved in with respect to this bill. The very issue of convergence of media, computing and telecommunications and its social implications with regard to content warrant a far deeper analysis from a social policy perspective than this inquiry.

How typical it is that in the midst of all of these interesting debates—and there have been speakers in this chamber prior to me this evening who have alluded to this in some depth—the only time that we have a comprehensive debate about the Internet and content and its social implications is in the context of a censorship bill. The government lends itself to extended rhetoric about the importance of the economic growth of electronic commerce and what that will bring to Australia's industry, to our providers of businesses and services and to the global economy—you are all familiar with the rhetoric—yet the first legislative debate we have here is not about digital signatures and fundamental mechanisms to facilitate the global economy and Australia's participation in it but is about censoring the Net.

I believe the impact of this bill will grow in the way that the bill imposes itself upon what should be one of the most exciting and growing industry sectors and social movements occurring in the country at this point in time. What seems to be a bill that is somewhat a constraint in relation to the presentation of content unsuitable for minors has effectively positioned Australia as a pariah in the global online community. Why? Far more at this stage, Australia has now given the global online community the perception that it is not interested in the potential of this new medium. We have given the perception that, in fact, a moral conservative agenda is far more important to economic growth and social expansion. We have given the perception to the global community that Australia is backward looking and is retrograde in its attempt to participate in policy development in the new century. Through this bill, we have now given the perception that we have a government that, above all else, is prepared to compromise our very future for a short-term and politically expedient agenda.

How sad a day it is that we find ourselves in this position. How sad a day it is that we have come to this point when even the Internet industry was progressing rapidly towards an outcome with respect to its code. It was not like the government had to operate in an environment of complete inertia. But it chose, knowingly, to move forward in a way which would alienate the sector which, it argued, it was trying to provoke into some action. It is worth while reflecting on some evidence given to the committee. I think it sums up this point. Patrick Fair of IIA had the following to say:

We were expecting a gentler approach which allowed the code to do its work without very onerous penalties and without a heavy-handed corralling of the conduct of our members. This is another example of heavy-handed legislation working against small businesses, finding more red tape, more special conditions and more difficult technical requirements which will make the efficient growth of the Internet and electronic services in this country less feasible.

The IIA, like Labor, recognises the fact that this bill will have a negative impact on the emerging e-commerce industry in Australia and on our ability to compete internationally in the provision of Internet based services. I quote from Mr Marzbani's evidence:

If you wanted to hurt the Internet, and you wanted to hurt Internet electronic commerce, this would be one of the best ways to start.

If this bill passes it will be a disaster for the Internet industry in this country. Again, Mr Marzbani said:

Since the nascent Internet e-commerce market could play a very important place in the future economy of Australia, even the slightest obstacle to Australia's participation in the global Internet e-commerce markets at this critical point in time should be avoided at all costs.

These points reinforce my earlier statements about the critical timing of Australia's participation in the global electronic environment. Greg Taylor, the Vice Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia, said that this bill:

. . . will create congestion and bottlenecks which will impede the flow of Internet traffic. It will increase costs and threaten the economic viability of ISP's. It will reduce the freedom of all adult Australians to choose what they read. It will turn Australia into a paternalistic regime with characteristics on a par with countries like China, Burma and Iran.

More than anything else, I believe that this bill demonstrates the stratified nature of social experience within the federal parliament. Representation for those in our community who have their comfort zone online is minimal, highlighting in the first instance a generation gap that, with each passing day, isolates young people in this country more than ever. It is Australia's young people for whom the Internet is a social and cultural experience. They will view this legislation and this government's approach with complete contempt, as it deserves. The Net is not something to be constrained or controlled. It is not evil. It is a tool for social progression and, to young Australians and many other online citizens, the Internet is the epitome of freedom and offers the promise of a new dignity both with respect to political activity and the democracies of the future. (Time expired)