Last month, the governing Australian Coalition had a bizarre and confusing reversal about their plans to impose Internet censorship on both mobile broadband carriers and home ISPs. The Coalition announced their Online Safety Policy, just 72 hours before polls opened for voting in the federal election. The Coalition won the election, but instead of pursuing the policy, they quickly and surprisingly disavowed the plans.
Just before the election, the Coalition announced their plans for a new opt-out internet filter, which would be similar to the filter recently imposed in the UK. Under the plan, mobile internet providers would be forced to filter adult content until users proved their age, while home ISPs would also apply filtering as a default “unless the customer specifies otherwise.” The policy document states that “the Coalition does not support heavy-handed regulation of the internet,” but many, including the Australian Pirate Party’s New South Wales candidate Brendan Molloy thought the plan was indeed heavy handed:
Opt-out filtering treats everyone like a child by default, and puts those who choose to opt-out from the Government-chosen list of acceptable websites on a list of deemed ‘undesirables’ that can be later abused. This is a reprehensible policy and we will fight it to the death.
The policy was also unpopular online, with some voters stating they had decided not to vote for the Coalition as a result.
But almost as soon as the policy was announced, the Coalition reversed course and disavowed their own plan. Malcolm Turnbull, party communications spokesperson, released a statement to say that the document was misleading:
The policy which was issued today was poorly worded and incorrectly indicated that the Coalition supported an ‘opt-out’ system of internet filtering for both mobile and fixed-line services. That is not our policy and never has been.
The statement went on to say that their policy was intended only to encourage carriers to make software available for parents, and to encourage parents to take responsibility for their children’s activities online. But this explanation rings hollow. After all, the disavowal came only a few hours after Turnbull himself had promoted the policy on triple j’s Hack, and after Liberal Coalition MP Paul Fletcher had clearly stated that their intentions as a party were “[to] work with the industry to arrive at an arrangement where the default is that there is a filter in the home device, the home network, that is very similar to the filters that are available today.” It seems unlikely that this document was created in error; as Greens senator Scott Ludlam pointed out, it was a “complex policy document” which has “clearly had a lot of work go into it.”
So if the policy wasn’t a mistake, what was it? It has been suggested that the introduction of this policy a mere 72 hours before the election was an attempt to ‘sneak’ it past the voters. This clearly failed. The online community clearly noticed the policy. Although their attention didn’t alter the expected outcome of the election, is it possible it contributed to the quick reversal of the policy? Over a few dozen hours, a storm of social media comments drew voters’ attention to the policy and its flaws, and this could help explain the quick reversal. A policy that perhaps once would have been able to slip under the radar was caught in the spotlight of social media and defeated.
It remains to be seen whether the policy will re-emerge in future, but for now the Australian people are free to install internet filtering software as they please, and protect their children as they feel necessary.
Special Herdict Contributor