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Tuesday, 25 May 1999
Page: 5371


Senator LUNDY (10:14 PM) —This is one of those crunch points in this particular legislative debate. What we are discussing here is the issue of do we or do we not mandate the provision of filtering technologies at ISP level. It is very interesting to hear the minister slide around, in his own words, about whether or not they are actually moving down a path of mandating filtering technologies at ISP level. The government's amendments that the minister has foreshadowed do mention the words `technical and commercial feasibility', but I would argue that they have gone no further in progressing the position than the minister's weasel words during public discussion and as recorded in a range of press releases and media commentary.

The minute the minister realised that his promise of making the Net safe for children was completely undermined by the fact contained in the CSIRO report entitled Blocking content on the Internet: a technical perspective, he adjusted his rhetoric to say, `Technical feasibility includes this qualification of what is actually technically and commercially viable.' The conclusion of that report I mentioned goes to the heart of the matter and says, in the first instance, `No, it is not technically feasible to achieve the blocking of content or the filtering of content.' Then the minister, through the National Office of Information Economy, sought an additional opinion from the CSIRO, which did serve the purpose of helping the minister adjust his rhetoric in relation to what was technically feasible and what was not. It went like this: the minister said, `Yes, it is technically feasible to implement filtering technology, but it is not going to be 100 per cent effective.'

So what is technically feasible and what is not? What we know is that it is technically feasible, because the products actually exist, to implement some sort of filtering regime at a range of levels including the ISP level and certainly including the ability of the end user to install on their own PC some form of filtering application. So we know it is technically feasible. But what it is not is effective. It is not effective because it cannot provide the guarantees of which the minister has been so quick to try to assure the public.

So here we have an amendment in which the government are arguing they are putting qualifications of technical and commercial feasibility. It is an interesting step. I do not think it changes their position one iota, whereas the opposition's amendment identi fies the substance of the issue—that is, we do not support the mandating of filtering technologies because they are not effective, albeit they may exist and in some respects, depending on your definition, may be technically feasible. The opposition's amendments go a step further and, once again, to the heart of the matter—it is empowerment of end users. The third part of our amendment states:

(c) whether the particular steps enable end users to be better informed about the use of, or assisted in the actual use of, filter devices for self-regulation of Internet content.

This is a crunch point in this legislation, as I said. It is about putting in place a mechanism that encourages Internet service providers to tell their clients about what options are available to them in the first instance. Surely this is one of the most useful mechanisms for educating the community—not trying to pretend that you are not mandating filtering technology, not trying to pretend that you are qualifying it on commercial grounds, but stating unequivocally that part of what constitutes reasonable steps is the proactive presentation to potential Internet users of the range of options that are available to them. They are not predetermining a filtered system, but our amendments best reflect what is the most effective way to enable the community or parents—let's be specific about this; it is about parents protecting their children from undesirable content—to have the power, the capability, the knowledge, the confidence and the skills to put in place something that suits them.

Again, this is a question of diversity. If this provision is not included with respect to what constitutes reasonable steps, what options are parents going to have to make informed choices about the range of filtering technologies? This actually requires or identifies particular steps being taken by ISPs to promote differential services. It is interesting that in that first report by the CSIRO the whole notion of differential services was one of the key recommendations. It does go to the point I raised earlier about the importance of having a diversity of options available for the filtering of content for people who choose to go down that path.

It is important that users of the Internet also have a choice not to filter their content. More than anything else, the government's plan lends itself to not allowing Internet users in Australia the option of choosing not to filter their content. I am concerned that, despite this qualification identified in the government's amendment, that option will not be available to some people, perhaps inadvertently because they will sign on with an Internet service provider that offers a filtered feed service and for whatever reason—perhaps lack of awareness or lack of communication by the service provider—people will get a filtered feed in terms of the content they can access and they will not be aware of it. The issue of end user empowerment once again comes to the fore. I believe that only with this additional item contained within our definition of what constitutes reasonable steps are we at least trying to steer this bill back in the right direction and putting the emphasis on end user control of content.