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Australian Senator Stephen Conroy's 2010 "petulance" in perspective today.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

In 1998, Australian Senator Stephen Conroy became Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Regulation, a period that covered the introduction of the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988, the creation of AUSTRAC and the introduction of what was, at the time, a comprehensive set of law and regulation. By 2010, he'd had several other jobs, in government and in opposition, and as Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy he'd set his sights on consumer protection in technology and he wanted to introduce an Australian internet-wide filter.

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Conroy appeared before a Senate committee in May 2010 and told the members "the wrote a piece of code designed to do it."

"It" was the collecting of personal data by Google's Street View not, as might be first thought, by photographing people in places they would rather not be photographed but by "sniffing" for open wifi connections. He described it as "the single greatest breach in the history of privacy."

As we not now, that claim was inaccurate: but it was hardly his fault: while governments had known internet surveillance which gave access to the lives of computer users, we did not at that time know about Prism, an extraordinary cataloguing of the activities of ordinary people, all over the world. And it wasn't only the USA: the UK's Government Communications Headquarters spied on everyone, everywhere including, it has been claimed, diplomatic communications with allies.

Google did what all large tech companies do: it went on the PR offensive, saying the Conroy's plan for a nationwide internet filter would damage Australia's reputation as a "liberal democracy" and would set "a dangerous global precedent." Further attacks came from Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Conroy's plan, which received some support in Canberra, had in mind to filter the web to prevent access to sites displaying content such as rape, incest, bestiality and child sex abuse.

Conroy responded to Google's criticisms by describing the comments by the then CEO Eric Schmidt as "a bit creepy." In particular, he said that Google thought it was above the law and hypocritical over censorship. He no doubt had in mind that Google had voluntarily censored content that could be accessed through a search from within China. In January 2010, Google announced that it, and other US companies, had been subject to hacking from China and that, in response it would no longer undertake censorship. China's response, in March, was to put another brick in The Great Firewall and block access to all Google services, at least through direct access.

Conroy said "it's on their website. "Trust us" it says" and he went on to say that Google claimed it could be trusted not to deliver inappropriate content.

That is patently untrue, even today, and Google, like most large social media platforms, allows pretty much anything to appear, relying on internet users to report things for review as to whether they should be taken down.

Conroy's plan had begun earlier and had had considerable opposition. There was a trial of a filter in 2009 but it ran into trouble immediately as Internet Service Provider iiNet publicly withdrew its application to take part. iiNet's then managing director Michael Malone was one of many who were disturbed by the publication of a blacklist of URLs which, apparently, was similar to a list produced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"It became increasingly clear that the trial was not simply about restricting child pornography or other such illegal material, but a much wider range of issues including what the government simply describes as 'unwanted material' without an explanation of what that includes," Malone said in a statement. (as reported by Ziff Davis at zdnet.com)

This was 2009, remember, and "Malone said that although everyone was against child pornography, the filtering trial would not help keep it away from Australian internet users. "In reality, the vast majority of online child pornography activity does not appear on public websites but is distributed over peer-to-peer networks which are not and cannot be captured by this trial or policy."

This was just one month after Conroy had announced that six ISPs would take part in the trial: Primus Telecommunications, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1 were on the list. iiNet was not but applied to join it before withdrawing once more details came available. But the big boys: Telstra and Internode refused to take part and Optus came along later. The trial was to be on the basis that the customers of the ISPs would have to opt in.

In 2011, Reporters without Borders, a pressure group, "expressed concern at the government's readiness to create a repressive Internet filtering system which would be managed in a non-transparent manner by a government agency based on very broad criteria."

By 2012, Conroy's plan for a Great Internet Barrier was dead in the water. The endless barrage of criticism of the principles were reduced to sound-bite headlines such as "Porn doesn’t lead to rape culture" (
Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology writing in The Conversation who wrote "With the key exception of child pornography, which should continue to be pursued with all the force of the law, sexually graphic online content will not now be blocked by a committee of faceless censors armed with a secret list of sites they consider offensive. "

As we look back over the decade or so since Conroy's plan was scrapped, how much is the same and how much has changed?


The USA is still spying on people but it's not doing a great job of keeping it secret: in early 2023, Ha'aretz an independent Israeli newspaper reported (relying on the New York Times) that the US government had created a shell company (spot the irony) to purchase a surveillance program Landmark from Israeli company NSO, which also produces software called "Pegasus." In an even greater irony, the company that bought Landmark was created just days after the US government "announced the blacklisting of NSO for activities contrary to the United States’ national security or foreign policy interests".

Landmark reveals the location of a mobile phone simply by entering the mobile phone number.

Pegasus is designed to be covertly and remotely installed on mobile phones including the iPhone which advertises its privacy features as a primary selling point.

But what about companies that gather information they shouldn't or which use information for unauthorised purposes?

This month Australia's Consumer and Competition Commission obtained a court order against two Facebook (i.e. Meta) companies. They will pay AUD20 million plus costs for informing customers of the purpose that information was gathered for - and then using it outside that scope. Absolutely no one will be surprised that what Facebook did was to use private information for its own profit. Perhaps we should now expect an investigation of WhatsApp - Facebook said that the service is encrypted and even the company can't read it - but it also said that it was planning a personalised advertising service based on messages. Those claims has never, so far as we can ascertain, been reconciled,

One thing has proved to be absolutely true: iiNet's Malone was far ahead of the understanding of tech by the regulators and governments. Filtering the 'net does not catch internet activity that does not use the web. The most obvious example of this is messaging services which connect via the internet but not via the web. Device to Device video is all-but-impossible to intercept and monitor. In fact, the only prosecutions related to this have come from what has been saved on a device.

What about the "porn does not cause rape" argument. It's interesting that the very class of people who were crying about the reduction in their liberties are the same class of people who seek to ban misogyny and other types of behaviour, such as Andrew Tate. Why? Because, they say, they believe that he influences young men to adopt his views and to replicate his behaviour. Again, these two approaches do not seem to have been reconciled. Surely, either, behaviour influences and leads to copycats or it doesn't. The debate is encapsulated with the quite forceful arguments over video games such as Grand Theft Auto, both in relation to the on-road behaviour and a sex scene withn the game.

So was Conley right ?

Other governments think so and the blocking of websites is a far from uncommon event, often for political or religious (especially where there is a cross-over) reasons.

Australia may not have its Great Barrier in place but it does maintain a list of URLs that ISPs must block.

Conley wasn't wrong and he wasn't being petulant. But he wasn't well enough informed to be able to coherently present his case to a population who would rather believe an Internet giant than one of their own ministers. It's astonishing that almost 15 years later, everything he complained about is still happening and regulators are taking ad hoc potshots at companies - in the Facebook case several years after the event.

If they can't be pre-active, to be promptly reactive should be the minimum standard.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill is at www.countermoneylaundering.com

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