The Coalition's Working Group into Peoples' Fragility

Image showing a sign for an Internet cafe, declaring it open. 

In that greyish haze between the dying election campaign cycle and the dawn of the election itself, the coalition member for Bradfield announced with great aplomb and to everyone's astonishment that the coalition would introduce a national level Internet censorship scheme. The Internet's reaction to such proposals is traditionally unwavering in this regard and this occasion was no different - unhinging.

The cat was stuffed back in the bag and the whole matter played down as a typo as the coalition walked back a highly controversial proposal. They removed the policy document from the website, potentially concerned at having ostensibly suffered badly at one election on technology policy matters before, and in any event they had opposed censorship in parliament for three-ish years, arguably because it goes against core party principles. Where did this policy document come from? What bore this policy? How was this allowed to happen?

Before we examine this it's useful to understand something fundamental to Australian governmental approaches to the Internet.

The Internet connects everybody on it to everybody else, effectively pooling the world's knowledge and leaving audience interest as the last obstacle to your mesesage being heard. Provided people actually care to listen to you, they can hear whatever fool thing you have to say. To governments globally this produces challenges but in no contemporary western-style democracy do governments struggle quite so much as they do in Australia, because for some deep culture-of-government reason Australian politicians see two Internets where the electorate only sees one. It was less obvious with the ALP than it is the coalition. When Stephen Conroy was communications minister the ALP's enthusiasm for the digital economy / civil and confident society Internet was obvious with the ALP's unfeasible more-than-a-decade more-than-$50b fibre to the premises NBN. To propose such a massive scale investment is a vote of confidence for a thing's worth (although no guarantee its worth is understood). The less enthusiastic but still prominent distaste for the content problem, or "Cybersafety", manifested itself in the six year long campaign to institute some form of mandatory web censorship while the entirety of Australia's online community and industry shouted them down. "Entirety" in this context of course excludes fringe religious groups whose moral ideals were borne out by the policy, as well as those industry sectors who stand to make money in goods and services that implement censorship schemes. They were of course delighted.

The coalition has the same split-personality Internet view but it's more obvious. The digital economy / civil and confident society / future Australia Internet is the Internet of then shadow communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull but the child predation / build a bomb / gamble the mortgage redraw account Internet, that's the Internet of Paul Fletcher and the coalition's Online Safety Working Group. This group was formed early in 2012 and has since sought to identify a fairly fact-free collection of reasons why we should all be pants-wettingly frightened of the Internet. Finding things to be frightened of is always a precursor to a handful of pre-canned things we should do about them, and these were shovelled rather imperviously into a policy document. This is why, despite Twitter's incredulty, Malcolm Turnbull had no idea of what Paul Fletcher was about to spring. Because Malcom is in charge of the Jekyll Internet, the Hyde Internet is Paul Fletcher's problem.

So what is the Coalition's Working Group and what does it do?

The group is effectively;

  • Paul Fletcher as chair
  • Gary Humphries, ACT senator, secretary to the shaddow attorney-general and shadow parliamentery secretary for defence materiel
  • Alex Hawke MP, the member for Mitchell
  • Natahsa Griggs MP, country liberal member for Solomon
  • Wyatt Roy MP, the member for Longman and youngest member of parliament
  • Patrick Secker MP, the member for Barker and opposition whip
  • Senator Stephen Parry (TAS), the chairman of committees
  • Senator Bridget McKenzie (VIC) the nationals whip in the senate and
  • Luke Simpkins MP, the member for Cowan

In November 2012 it released a discussion paper that raised some matters that have been raised before, and will be raised again.

The establishment of an online safety commissioner

This one pops up routinely on both sides of parliament. Effectively the government wants an independent commisioner or ombudsman with powers to regulate what it sees as the primary participants in the Internet; Google is usually front and center with Facebook and Twitter increasingly recent additions. The problem this proposal has is the same problem as was recently uncovered in the review into the Interactive Gambling Act which bans companies including those overseas from offering online gambling services to Australians unless it's horse racing or some sport events - trying to regulate companies overseas which aren't subject to Australian law is useless. The same problem applies to the ACMA trying to ban material which offends Australian regulatory offensiveness standards (which the Working Group's discussion paper goes into as well). Australian law applies to Australians. This is why in the dying days of the ALP government, Stephen Conroy tried so hard to goad social media corps into setting up local presences.

A co-operative regulatory scheme

Despite the fact that Australian law doesn't apply to Facebook which is incorporated in Ireland (for the purposes of Australian users) or Twitter which is incorporated in the US, the Australian government would really like it to. Additionally they'd like Australian Internet service providers to add to their current focus (providing Internet service) and also do other things the Government would like them to do, and also things industry would like the government to like ISPs to do. Effectively, everybody is doing their own thing and not what the government wants because they don't have to. The discussion paper, like other efforts before it from the ALP, invites everyone to do what the government wants.

Branding, product symbology and classification for technology products that warrants them child-safe

Every so often the government from either major party draws the conclusion that the reason parents and carers don't make identical decisions about children as what politicians might, is because parents aren't very good at technology and need the government's help. Of course parents don't need the government's help. Research from the Australian Communication and Media Authority among others has shown that parents largely trust their children and understand what they're doing. This isn't unusual; parents generally trust their children to largely do the right thing online and aren't disappointed at a high enough rate for them to stop. Where parents do feel they need help, they tend to reach out to other parents, review sites and consumer information resources (Choice is popular). Overwhelmingly parents just don't look to the government for information on how to parent. It doesn't stop the government introducing new ways to advise parents with iconography and then tweaking it in subsequent reviews, during which parents just continue to use communities and their own judgement to make parenting choices.

Because of course parents check the attorney-general's web page for advice about what phone to buy their children, SmartTraveller style.

But Paul Fletcher's faux pas didn't come from those points, it came from these final two.

How material which damages children online can be quickly removed from view

and

Research into the harfmful impact the Internet has on children

The primary problem these two points have, both under the Coalition's Working Group, the ALP's 2007 Plan for Cybersafety and every other misguided government attempt at regulating moral calm into the online society for the past three decades that they've been ignored, is that no clear articulation has ever been made into how the Internet is discretely harmful to children, and where there are threats online, how they are different from threats offline, and where there is a distinction, what if anything should be done. Paul Fletcher accidentally followed the ALP's Internet censorship proposal path just as they followed the moral handwringing of the government before them, and that's where the election eve policy gaffe came from. We know from research that the urban myths of child predators free-range hunting on Facebook are just that - urban myths - but despite parents, teachers and accademics articulating genuine concerns from time to time where government may have a role assisting, government continues on with hairbrained schemes like mandatory or default-on Internet censorship, Internet mandarins, warning labels for the online world and trying to get industry to stop protesting the stupidity and cooperate.

I'll be watching the working group, because I doubt sincerely whether Internet censorship is the last mistake it will repeat.

Image: balleyne