Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Tony Smith, is passionate in his views about ICT policy. ARN spoke to him about why he won’t oppose mandatory filtering outright and why the National Broadband Network (NBN) will be scrapped if he comes to power.
Your predecessor, Senator Nick Minchin, was very straightforward about his position against the Internet filter. With so much of the IT industry moving in that direction, why aren’t you following?
Tony Smith (TS): He [Minchin] said that the Coalition would be prepared to assess any credible trials and to look at the detail of any proposal. He was sceptical of the proposal. The point I’d make to you is that while this is an issue that has very strong opinions in all directions, the Coalition didn’t go down this path and the reason was because we didn’t think it could be workable or effective from a technical point of view.
That is, we felt that there would be overblocking and it would harm the online experience for law-abiding Australians by slowing the Internet. The reason I point that out is that our driving factors were practical. We didn’t think it would be workable or effective.
Of course it needs to be borne in mind that from a philosophical or principle point of view, it was the Coalition Government back in 2000 that introduced legislation for the takedown notices for Australian hosted material. I point that out because obviously the history of this is that when we were in Government, we were prepared to take steps to prevent access to material from the Internet.
When it came to filtering, the issue was whether it would be workable or effective. It’s an area that triggers strong opinions. We’re waiting for the legislation and I think that’s a prudent and sensible thing to do. We won’t be dissuaded from doing that – we have a big party room that wants to see the details of the legislation. That’s where decisions are made in the Coalition. If others have other decision making mechanisms, it’s their business and it’s a free country.
A group of Liberal backbenchers are against the use of a mandatory filter. Would you and Tony Abbott let them follow their conscience and vote against it?
TS: What those backbenchers have done is express a view based on the information to date and we haven’t had the party room deliberation on the legislation yet.
The fact that it took the trials so long to occur – nearly two years – demonstrates the technical difficulties they’ve obviously been having in taking a well-meaning thought bubble and converting it to practical policy. The fact that there’s been a delay even from the December announcement on bringing forward the legislation also highlights that. We’ll wait to see what it is they’re actually trying to legislate and that will allow us to examine the workability in a very detailed way. Those backbenchers who are all very intelligent and articulate people will put their view in the party room, which will then make a decision in the normal way.
So if the Government could prove to you it could go forward with a mandatory filter with no technical troubles you would support it?
TS: What we’ve said is we’re yet to be convinced and we haven’t had the technical assurances that it can work. We want to see if it can be effective as well. We’ll wait for the legislation and see what they put forward. It was due at the end of March and that hasn’t occurred yet.