The Future of the Filter

Posted in #ausvotes,#openinternet by skepdadblog on August 17, 2010
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Scott Ludlam summed it up at the Greens ICT Forum in Brisbane last night: Coalition opposition to the filter is “a promise made by a politician in an election campaign” and thus we have to wonder if it is a core or non-core promise.

The Coalition sat on their hands for a very long time during the filter debate.  Their mantra was “we will wait until we see the legislation” – politspeak for “we’re not committing until we know how many votes are in it”.  Aside from the odd impassioned address from the likes of Joe Hockey, the Coalition doesn’t give the impression at all of being opposed to mandatory internet censorship on principle.  Quite the opposite, as Ludlam was quick to emphasise last night – the Howard government had centralised internet filtering plans of their own but ditched them on advice that they were pragmatically unimplementable.  Conroy simply chose to ignore that advice and press on regardless.

Coalition opposition to Conroy’s filtering proposal in its current form was to a large extent influenced by the likes of EFA and the #openinternet campaign.  Not directly, as even my expansive ego can’t accommodate Mr Rabbit flipping through SkepDad on his Blackberry; but via journalists, who have been busted on a number of occasions lifting tweets and blog posts almost word for word to fill column inches in the major dailies.  Make no mistake: the fishbowl exists, with bloggers exhaling angry bubbles at each other in almost total isolation from the populace; but the hungry cats of the media crouch outside it watching intently.

It may seem that the filter and the NBN have suddenly become major issues in the public’s eye.  Unfortunately that’s not the case, but the media has realised that these are two of only a small number of issues that represent significant, macro differences between the two major parties.  The rest of the campaign, almost exclusively, is simply micro money-tossing at swinging voters in marginal electorates.  Outside of those electorates, there’s little to distinguish the ALP and the Coalition.

This all now begs the question: what is the future of the filter?  To a large and unsurprising extent, it depends on the results of Saturday’s contest.  EFA have addressed the technicalities of the legislative process, but I’d like to look a little deeper.

A Coalition victory would scuttle the filter in its current form.  This is perhaps not as unlikely as you might think, as there is a real possibility that the Coalition will win a majority of seats (primarily due to anti-Labor brand sentiment in QLD and NSW) despite corralling less than 50% of the popular vote.  Given that the Coalition have actively campaigned against the filter, they would almost certainly have to leave it a term before reactivating mandatory centralised filtering in any recognisable form.

That is not to say, however, that a range of measures disguised as cyber-safety initiatives would not be considered under a Coalition government.  It’s difficult to say what they might be though, and pointless to speculate.  A Lib/Nat win is a win for the anti-filter movement for all practical purposes (though the death of the NBN might make that a hollow victory).

Now the interesting part: an ALP victory on Saturday.  Conroy will view it as a public endorsement of the filter, despite the ALP’s shameless attempt to clear the decks of it as an election issue.  Don’t delude yourself that Conroy won’t be returned to the Senate, despite the admirable efforts of groups like Filter Conroy – Conroy is second on the ALP ballot, and between 80% and 95% of people vote above the line in the Senate.  That means that ALP Senate support would need to fall below 28.6% – including above the line preferences – for Conroy to miss out.  I don’t know what the odds are on that, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

The Greens may or may not hold the balance of power in the Senate, which leaves us with the unpleasant prospect of the ALP needing only to win over the few independents in order to railroad an unmodified filter proposal into law.  As disturbing as this is, it is unlikely purely due to the numbers involved.

The greatest risk from an anti-filter perspective is that a Coalition opposition will realise that they’re not quite as dogmatically opposed to filtering as they were when they saw it as a vote-winner.  What would it take for the opposition to be wedged on the filter in exchange for something?  Maybe some cost-cutting measures in the NBN proposal?  Maybe greater emphasis on child protection?

It’s not hard to imagine the Coalition distancing themselves from their anti-filter position if the proposal was changed just enough to let them state that it was a new ball game.  The Greens might howl in protest, but the ALP would sit quietly and not make a peep about backflipping.

What would those changes need to be?  Certainly a change to opt-in would be compelling, especially combined with some action to address the secrecy concerns.  The Coalition has been focusing however on other issues in their opposition – speed hits, ineffectiveness.   You and I and the rest of the “digital elite” can argue the difference between speed, response time, bandwidth and latency until the return of Firefly, but once the NBN is law the speed argument effectively goes away for most people.  The ALP have their “one of a range of measures” mantra to address the effectiveness issue, however disingenuously.

The filter isn’t dead.  Not by a long shot.  A Labor government will not need to convince you, me and the Greens that it is a good idea.  It would only need to help a Coalition opposition to find a credible way to lean back to its pre-2010 filtering preference, away from its anti-filter election platform; which may only require tiny semantic changes or a backroom stitch-up.

So on a purely filter-based platform, a Green vote is essential in the Senate.  Without the Senate balance of power, an unmodified filter has a good chance of going through.  Senate preferences should flow Liberal if you’re anti-filter, but that means voting below the line.  Senate votes shouldn’t affect the NBN, as only an unlikely Coalition Senate majority could prevent that if the ALP is returned and if they are not, well the NBN is dead anyway.

In the Lower House, a Green vote is both anti-filter and pro-NBN, but unless you live in a Green-dominated seat it is your Reps Coalition/ALP preference that will decide the future of the filter.  A returned Labor will run a significant risk of a filtering proposal being made law with only minor, if any, changes.  Optimistic pundits may say that a high Green primary vote may send a message to Conroy that his filter is unwelcome, but my impression of him is not one of a man open to messages and inferred dissent.  You need to assess for yourself if the clear and present risk of a modified filter is worth losing fibre to your door, and adjust your Reps Coalition/ALP vote – either primary, or first preference – accordingly.

This post has been syndicated on Election Blackout.