In what may be the fastest back-pedal in Australian political history, a Coalition policy document claiming that mobile phone providers and Internet service providers in Australia would be required to install Internet filtering software on phones and modems, switched on by default, has been disowned by both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Both have insisted that the problem was one of unclear communication, that the alleged claim that the Coalition had any plans for mandatory opt-out internet filtering was down to nothing more than a “poorly worded sentence”, and that the Coalition does not, and never did have, a policy of mandatory, opt-out internet filtering.
There was really nothing “poorly worded” about it, nor was it just one sentence. In multiple parts of the policy document, statements are made that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a requirement for Australian phone providers and ISPs to install blocking software on consumer devices. The ALP, sensing blood in the water, have ever-so-helpfully placed key sentences from the abstract on their own website now that the document’s been taken off the website of the Liberal party. I’ve reproduced their picture of the relevant part of the policy abstract below:
It’s not exactly unclear.
And if that isn’t clear enough, here’s my own snapshot of a section, further down in the document, with further relevant highlights:
Just in case it still isn’t clear if this filter is mandatory, be sure to read that last bit about “all new home broadband services”.And if that isn’t clear enough, the document repeatedly says that the proposed filtering system is modeled on the filtering system in the UK. In the UK, ISPs are required to give all citizens filtered internet connections unless they explicitly opt out.
The claim from Turnbull and Abbott now is that the Coalition policy has always been to encourage, but not require, mobile phone and internet service providers to offer internet filtering options to consumers; anything that suggests to the contrary is simply down to a “lack of clarity”, or a policy being “poorly worded”. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to square such a line with what the evidence plainly shows. This policy advocated that filtering software be placed on all mobile phones sold and modems installed in Australia, and that the filter would be on by default unless the customer explicitly requested to opt out (and requiring they actively prove they are not a child in order to have that request granted). That policy has now been reversed.
The policy itself, “The Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children”, doesn’t appear to have originated from Malcolm Turnbull’s office. Indeed, I suspect that the media interest in it may have been the first time he became aware of it. The first official media quote from a Coalition spokesman – which said mandatory opt-out filtering was Coalition policy – came from Liberal MP Paul Fletcher. The Age describes Fletcher as the chairman of the Coalitions’ online safety working group, and a backbencher. Most likely, the idea of internet filtering was floated as policy by that working group. Possibly someone should have taken the time to run that by the Minister of Communication first. A messy conflict of goals might have been avoided, and the embarrassing revisionism about what official Coalition policy was, as outlined in an official Coalition policy document, wouldn’t now be occurring..
I mean, I can understand party- internal policy disagreement. We’ve had a Labor government for the past six years, after all. But let’s not go around pretending that a now-disowned policy document didn’t say exactly what it damn well said.