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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9224


Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (10:13 AM) —I am delighted that this motion is up for debate today because it really does highlight the extraordinary position in which the Labor Party finds itself. The original motion that Senator Stott Despoja put down called on the government to repeal the Internet censorship legislation. She is no longer calling for that, so presumably even she recognises that that is a ludicrously silly position to adopt and it is simply not supported out there in the community.

What ought to be fundamentally understood in this whole debate is that the Labor Party voted against this legislation at the second reading stage. They did that because they were in this position where, on the one hand, Senator Lundy was totally captured by some of the noisy elements, like Electronic Frontiers, who have no interest at all in sensible and responsible regulation of the Internet, but were simply low grade, undergraduate political activists who thought that they could get themselves a bit of a run on free speech arguments—totally adopting the US approach, which I note Senator Bishop quite rightly says is not applicable in this country. Not only that, but they got themselves over to the recent Berterlsmann Conference and made a big noise there along the same lines—in other words, not in the slightest bit interested in the welfare of the community, whether parents have concerns or anything else; just adopting this sort of hard line, ultra dry civil liberties approach which no doubt appeals to people who might belong to the Civil Liberties Union in the US but does not cut much ice out here.

I think it is a fascinating political exercise. You had Senator Lundy captured on the one hand running that line, even though she is from the left and you would have thought that their bread and butter is industry intervention. I notice that in his comment Senator Bishop actually said that you cannot just compare us with the US, because we do have a tradition, particularly in the media, of intervention and regulatory mechanisms. That is precisely right. In other words, it is a natural approach. It is much more natural on the Labor Party's side to actually respond to community concerns and do something about it if you can, rather than wiping your hands and taking the laissez-faire approach of effectively saying, `We will leave it up to parents.'

The fact is, of course, that most parents do not feel comfortable trying to self-regulate the Internet. They do not feel that they are end users who are dying to be empowered by having access to filtering technology or being able to buy packages from service providers. Only 22 per cent of households have the Internet. The vast majority do not and those who do, generally speaking, are occasional users. The children are often fanatical users, and quite rightly so, because it is a fantastic new medium and there is an amazing amount of knowledge, entertainment and information to be acquired. To suggest that somehow parents are on an equal footing with their children is not real world, and I think we all know that. The last thing parents are going to want to do is to be telling their children how to run the Internet, or having to accept responsibility for purchasing those sorts of items.

I was interested in the debate about regulation of free to air television arising out of the Port Arthur massacre. We had an inquiry which recommended the introduction of the V chip. That was generally supported. The experience in the US is that, although sets are now embedded with V chips, hardly anyone purchases them. In other words, the theory is fine. Yes, parents can if they like ensure that there are coding devices that will filter out violence on television, but in practice it just does not work.

Labor has found itself in this position of desperately having to find some product differentiation and do the precise opposite of what it would have done in government. It would have been in like Flynn on the approach we are taking, because we are not being technology specific. We are not directing service providers or anyone else to adopt any particular approach, block sites or interfere with international gateways. We simply say to them, `Set up industry codes of practice. It is acceptable to us if it is technologically feasible and commercially viable, but you've got to do your best. You've got to take whatever action is open to you, within reason, to ensure that parents and children are properly protected.'

All of what Senator Bishop said essentially confirms that. Parents are very concerned indeed. The figures from the Berterlsmann survey were that 53 per cent of Australian respondents said they would block pornographic content in all circumstances, while a further 33 per cent said they would block this content in certain circumstances. That is a higher figure than for racist messages. Seventy-four per cent of Australian respondents said that the courts and legal authorities, politicians and other agencies all have a part to play in the appropriate supervision and selection of Internet content. In other words, they are not just saying, `Leave it to end user empowerment', which is basically jargon for `let's do nothing.' And they certainly do not agree that the most appropriate arrangement is the education of users, including parents and teachers, about the appropriate use of the Internet. In other words, they expect governments to respond sensibly, and not in a draconian manner; not to simply ban or be out there as policemen surfing the net and trying to block material off their own bat, but they do expect a sensible industry response. That is why I find it fascinating that somehow there is this notion that the community is opposed to what we are doing. They certainly are not.

The industry itself accepts that there should be these codes of practice and this form of regulation. We have been trying to negotiate it for the last three years with the Internet Industry Association. Their problem is that there are these maniacs—these electronic frontiers outfits—running around stirring up trouble, using quaint expressions and feeding lines to that woman from the Civil Liberties Union who then gets out there, gets a good run and says that we are global village idiots. This is just a low-grade political campaign. I do not find industry opposing this approach.

I was fascinated when I was in Silicon Valley about two months ago. I waited for industry to raise it, because it was at the height of the furore. It was just after the legislation had gone through and I was doing the rounds of all the IT companies in the valley. I waited for them to raise it with me. The only people who ever raised it with me were journalists who were saying, `Isn't this a big problem?' I replied, `Why it is a big problem?' They said, `It is because it is getting media coverage. It is coming out of Australia. Your Senator Lundy is faxing the New York Times and saying, "Isn't it disgraceful?" and Electronic Frontiers Australia is calling for the minister's resignation. Isn't this an issue?' It is an issue for the media, because it is new, exciting and a lot of fun, but it was not an issue for the industry.

The only people who raised it with me on that visit were Yahoo who thought it was a good idea. I recently saw the president and CEO of Lotus, which is a major player. He was out visiting Australia. Again, I waited for him to raise it with me and he did not. Over the years I have seen a lot of these people and none of them have ever raised it. I thought I might as well ask him what he thinks. His answer was, `Industry has no issue with online content regulation. The industry endorses content regulation.'

In other words, all of the responsible players—and most of these people have kids of their own—do not for a moment want to see the anarchy that is prevailing at the moment. Senator Bishop quite rightly pointed out that his 11-year-old daughter was distressed by accidentally coming across an offensive web site. We all know this can happen. I was told last night that www.9msm, not www.9msn, is a hard core porn site. We all know that if you get it wrong between whitehouse.com and whitehouse.gov and all sorts of others, you can accidentally find yourself on a hard core porn web site.

That article you referred to in USA Today was run out here quite extensively because mousetrapping is an issue. You say that the hosts were in Australia and then you say that, in international forums, it is entirely appropriate to put pressure on host countries to clean up their own backyards. That is precisely what we are doing. We are not just saying that we hope that end users, parents, will block these sites. We think it is offensive, the community thinks it is offensive and the industry thinks it is offensive. Electronic frontiers do not and neither does that American Civil Liberties Union. They challenged, constitutionally, legislation that went through Congress trying to protect children from Internet porn, on the grounds of free speech.

You get all of this hypocritical hand-wringing like, `We're not in favour of pornography being delivered to children, but we just think that freedom of speech is even more important. So, much as we do not like it, this sort of thing just has to happen because it is a free society.' That might play in the US, but I suspect it does not, and Senator Ferris will make very clear the attitude of the US government. They do not think it is just a matter for parents anymore, if they ever did. There were sections of the industry who thought it was not a bad approach, a good start, but it is not the case around the world. It is not the case in places like Germany where, if you remember, I think it was the managing director of AOL in Germany who was sentenced to a jail term because of a failure to take action.

There can be no doubt that the community expects us to take action and to take it responsibly. We think the industry code is a sensible approach. We are very encouraged, and we think it is a step in the right direction, that the Internet Industry Association have tabled a draft code at long last. We welcome that very much. But where is this concern, apart from those maniacs I mentioned earlier? Senator Bishop said that a `recent report said', so I asked him who it was and he said it was the National Australia Bank. That is about the only thing I have seen in recent months, and that was fundamentally wrong.

That NAB, Arnold Bloch Leibler and Deloitte report was fundamentally wrong on three issues. It said that ISPs are required to monitor all messages passing through their systems; and they are not. As we all know, it is a complaints driven regime and that is a huge difference. I mean, if you expected every service provider to monitor everything on the Internet, it would be a chaotic situation. We have never asked for that and it has never been put in the legislation. Yet here we have three supposedly responsible industry players basically being sucked in by a bit of media hype, and not doing their homework. They refer to the government's claims that 96 per cent of Australians have access to ISDN—this is a bit peripheral—and, again, that is wrong. There is a capability but there is not access delivered. Their third factual error was that the regional telecommunications infrastructure fund had been increased by $60 million in 1998.

If that is the report Senator Bishop is relying on, it is quite clear that this is not a serious work. This is really just a quick and dirty response to a bit of media driven concern. I am pleased therefore that they subsequently put out a media release congratulating the government and the Internet industry on their agreement—and that is not right either: there is no agreement between us at this point—to implement a code of conduct which will form the basis of a new Internet censorship regime. It is more that they have responded by putting a draft code on the table.

The three organisations who last month issued a report building a stronger information economy for Australia said in a statement today that they believe that the code of conduct, when implemented through the government's legislative framework, would deliver the best possible outcome for the future. They said that the development had put to rest their concerns, which have been expressed to the government in their joint report. The National Australia Bank, Arnold Bloch Leibler and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu went on to say that they were looking for a bipartisan approach on this issue, confident that this recent development would achieve the important objectives of the legislation and the needs of industry. So there you have it. About the only report that Senator Bishop can point to—apart from these utterly fringe players who have no interest in the substance of the issue—is the one out there which is basically saying that they are happy with the current legislative framework and the way in which it is developing. I have not seen anything in recent times to contradict that.

As far as I am aware, the bulk of the correspondence we get from community groups has been overwhelmingly supportive. I sign off a number of letters each week from interest groups around the countryside who basically say, `Thank God someone is doing something.' The notion that somehow you can just leave it to end user empowerment might go down well in caucus or at a few branch meetings but it means nothing. It is the very sort of thing we used to get slated for time and again. I urge Labor to have a good, hard look at itself on this issue and understand where the community stands. They do not want you to simply follow the Senator Lundy approach of `hands off; do nothing'. They want you to take responsible action.

Of course, it goes beyond pornography. This is also designed to ensure that material that is criminal is excluded wherever possible. If you have a hands off approach, you do not do anything about that either. We have been through this many times and I have said that terrorist bomb recipes, paedophile lists and other things need to be dealt with specifically by Internet regulation. You cannot just leave this to the criminal code. The criminal code applies only to Australian suppliers. If the offence is committed within the Australian jurisdiction then, yes, we might be able to do something about it—although, there is a big argument about what constitutes publication and the like—but if it comes in from offshore there is not much that can be done.

That is why industry codes of practice are very important in protecting not only Senator Bishop's 11-year-old daughter, who might just happen to have the benefit of parents who are concerned and IT literate and available at the appropriate time, but also kids who are on the Internet for hours on end, without any parental supervision. Parents are quite uncomfortable because all they do, in most instances, is pay the ISP bill at the end of the month and essentially vacate the field. They do not want it left to end user empowerment. They want a judicious mix. We are not saying for a moment that end user empowerment is not important. It is necessary but it is not sufficient. By all means we encourage industry in its various manifestations to take action to protect parents. This can be reflected in the codes but we want proactive activity on the part of those in a position to do something about it, and a recognition that government has a role to play and that we do not simply stand back and say, `We want you to throw a bit more money at people' or `We want you to get out there and run a big awareness campaign.' None of those things will do anything more than appeal to a portion of the educated elite.

To say, for example, as Senator Bishop did, that 90 per cent of users believe that end-user filters are useful is saying nothing at all. As I have pointed out, filters are used by only a small proportion, but to say they are useful does not mean that is where they want it to start and finish. We agree they are useful but they are not going as far as you need to go to give people the protection they require.

All I can say is that this motion is fundamentally misconceived. If we are required to table reports every six months, I will be delighted to do so. I do not expect Senator Stott Despoja to recant or resile, because she has essentially been running a single dimen sion approach on this issue for many months, but I do think that the Labor Party, with a higher degree of pragmatism and an awareness of community standards, could at least accept that this regime ought to be given a fair go.