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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 68

Senator HARRADINE (2:42 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan. I refer to the recent seizure by the AFP of two million computer images of child sexual abuse. I ask the minister: does she acknowledge that the new laws relating to child pornography do not prevent child pornography being transmitted into Australia via the Internet? Does the minister accept the finding of the review of the Broadcasting Services Act earlier this year that a national server based system blocking access to child pornography is feasible? Is the minister aware that such a system is used by British Telecom to block child pornography? Why has the government been so reluctant to adopt that system? What is the government doing to block child pornography on the Internet and to address the urgent need for a national filtering system?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Harradine for this important question. The government has both a strong and a sustained record of cracking down on offensive and inappropriate content being hosted on Australian Internet service providers. The government is tough on Internet pornography and is certainly committed to protecting Australian children and families from the scourge of inappropriate material that can be inadvertently found and is peddled on the Internet. I am very pleased to be able to outline the government's approach to this scourge that modern societies face.

In 1999 the government introduced measures to counter the growing problem of offensive material on the Net when it introduced a comprehensive regulatory scheme which banned X-rated and restricted classification, or RC, material. As part of the program, the government also established NetAlert—which Senator Harradine is well aware of—to help children and families use and enjoy the Internet in a safe and responsible way. NetAlert has played a key role in educating all Australians—parents, their children, teachers and students—about safe Internet surfing. As part of the National CyberSafe Program, which was introduced recently and which I will come to, NetAlert will receive an additional $2 million to run a two-year targeted training roadshow and information campaign aimed at parents and teachers; because we know that the most effective way to deal with this problem is through a combination of tough regulation and education.

The government recently announced the launch of the National CyberSafe Program. The National CyberSafe Program forms part of the government's National Child Protection Initiative. It is a commitment, worth $30 million, to protect Australian children and families from sex criminals and online predators. The program is designed to educate parents, teachers and community groups about the risks for children online and provide them with information about how to keep children safe on the Net—including in chat rooms, where we know that many children are otherwise vulnerable. Community education is an important element of the online co-regulatory scheme established under schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act and builds on the earlier initiatives.

Senator Harradine asked about mandatory filtering systems. Under the industry code of practice introduced by the government, all Australian Internet service providers are required to provide content filters for their customers at cost price or below. These tools allow parents to actively control the access their children have to the Internet from the family computer and to have some degree of confidence about the safety of their children online. If any ISP is found not to comply with the code of practice, compliance can be enforced by the ABA and Internet service providers can be fined up to $27,500 per day. The government did consider mandatory filtering some years ago and reviewed this recently, as Senator Harradine correctly said. It found, on closer examination, that mandatory filtering would be highly problematic. It would have the potential to simply choke the Internet and drive up costs unacceptably for consumers and small businesses without necessarily solving the problems of offensive content. (Time expired)

Senator HARRADINE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. What effect has the government's action had on child pornography and other unacceptable images being transmitted into Australia? Why won't the government, at least as a start, prevent child pornography being transmitted into Australia either through the Internet and ISPs or via satellite? Why won't the government take that action since we have laws against child pornography?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Harradine for his supplementary question. I said in my answer to his primary question that simple filters are easily outsmarted by merchants of offensive content and that the kind of complex technologies needed to analyse every single item being downloaded were not considered feasible in our review. The review also estimated that the cost of this sort of filtering would be $45 million a year to begin with, falling to more than $33 million a year on an ongoing basis. The biggest issue—it is not so much the money—is that such an expensive scheme would not necessarily solve the problem and small to medium ISPs would simply be driven out of business for little or no benefit. What does work is greater information and parental supervision, and those are the kind of programs that the government is promoting with the $30 million initiative.