The minister v the internet

Robert Clark
26 May 2010

Until yesterday, few people outside Australia had heard of Stephen Conroy. Now that the communications minister has made his views on Google known, many more have.

In a hearing in Canberra yesterday, Conroy accused Google of launching “the single greatest breach in the history of privacy.”

“They [Google] consider that they are the appropriate people to make the decisions about people's privacy data, and that they are perfectly entitled to drive the streets and collect as much private information by photographing over fences and collecting data information,” Conroy fulminated.

A day earlier he launched a fusillade at Facebook for its “disregard” of privacy.

Fair enough. Both companies have been reckless with individuals’ privacy.

But Stephen Conroy? He had been called to the hearing to discuss his internet filter, in which he has created a blacklist of websites and directed ISPs to block them.

As a Google official said, there was “more discussion about Google and Facebook than about the actual proposed filter.”

It’s impossible not to see Conroy’s filter as an assault on privacy. The blacklist doesn’t just include content that is illegal, such as child pornography, but also material which Conroy for his own reasons has included, like an anti-abortion site.

Not to mention those inevitable howlers, such as the websites of a Queensland dentist and a kennel operator, which cause serious damage to genuine businesses.

Australian customs officials these days have the right to search the laptops and mobile phones of visitors to the country. That’s not an assault on privacy?

Google has been a vocal critic of the filter, and despite Conroy’s denial, his barrage was clearly a response to their high-profile opposition.

But the real point is that while Conroy is grandstanding on these issues, other, actual problems await.

The Australian NBN project is one of the biggest telecom projects anywhere in the world. To make it work, Conroy needs Telstra, but after a year of negotiations he has nothing to show for his efforts. Instead of scoring cheap political points, it’s time the minister delivered.

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