Shadow Minister Tony Smith on ISP filtering

The Shadow Communications Minister, Tony Smith, tells us why he won't oppose mandatory ISP filtering outright.

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.

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You caused a bit of controversy when you said you’d scrap the National Broadband Network if you won the next election. Will you honour every single contract if and when you come to power?

TS: We’ve said what the Government has done is reckless from day one. We wouldn’t have gone down this path and I said we’d be looking to do something very different in Government. We don’t think tearing up contracts is the right thing to do.

The other point I’d make is that we don’t expect to find that much done that is irrecoverable in terms of network build or where the legislation is at. But we won’t know the extent of the ‘concrete’ until closer to the election. It’s only sensible from our view that when that’s clearer, we too can be clearer and you’d be right to demand we are more specific at that time.

How much of Australia do you believe can be covered by a high-speed wireless network?

TS: Obviously, wireless is going ahead in leaps and bounds, but I also made the point that we won’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. We’ll have a mix of technologies and you can take some intermediate steps. That does not in any sense mean that’s the end game in Australia but it means we can give people a better deal than the ‘never never, wait for it, it’ll really be worth it’ NBN in the time ahead.

The Government’s embarked on this $43 billion NBN, which leaves underserved communities stranded for many years. We had the OPEL contract in place, which would’ve by last Christmas provided 900,000 households with better and more affordable broadband – that was scrapped. It was scrapped by the Minister just a few months after the last elections.

The reason was because his NBN1 was going to come to the rescue. Two-and-a-half years on, the only concrete promise from the Minister is that these people will be stranded for many years to come. There are some intermediate steps that can be taken generally and certainly the focus of Government spending should be in areas of market failure.

Would you promise to step in for all rural and regional communities that private companies don’t want to support with high-speed Internet?

TS: Where there are areas of market failure, the Government would insist that people had a decent and affordable service. Now you can have the regulatory frame work in place to drive the commercial rollout of better broadband generally and where the commercial market won’t go – where there are areas of market failure – we’re very clear that’s where the Government should step in and be there to assist.

For a community of less than 300 people, what speed of Internet connection do they deserve to have?

TS: With the OPEL contract, we set various benchmarks. At the moment, the capacities of technologies are evolving. We’ll be very clear before the election about what our targets are and we’ll also be setting some longer-term goals – not just for regional areas but also for the country as well.

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The Coalition is against the outright splitting of Telstra by the Government but the industry is calling out for structural separation. How would you change the market imbalance currently in place?

TS: The structure of Telstra was set back a couple of Governments ago and from our perspective, when we sold Telstra, we did so as a vertically integrated telco. That was the basis on which the shareholders bought it and the decisions taken many, many years ago were that the access regime would be the mechanism to apply.

The shareholders bought their shares in Telstra in good faith. [The Government] didn’t run to the last election saying they wanted to structurally separate Telstra and in fact, even when they announced NBN2, they didn’t in an upfront way announce they wanted to structurally separate Telstra.

We don’t think Telstra should be broken up, we’ve made that clear. The access regime is there to play the role for competition. If you’re saying to me ‘can the access regime be improved’ I’d say that we are always open to regulatory renovation and that it is something I’m very focused on. We’re not saying everything is perfect. I’m very open to changes with the access regime and that’s certainly got my attention.

But wouldn’t any shift in the market negatively impact on mum and dad investors one way or another?

TS: The access regime is there and operates to promote competition. If there are deficiencies found in it, and if there are improvements that need to be made, then they should be.

What sort of improvements would you suggest?

TS: Well as I said, we’re looking at it very closely at the moment and we will be very specific about where we think improvements can be made in the weeks and months ahead. Probably back here.