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Conroy the Barbarian - sinner or saint?

I've got mixed feelings about a man who is trying to save the internet with one hand and destroy it with the other.

Australia's communication minister, Senator Conroy, has emerged as an unlikely hero today after standing up to Telstra's bullying. Over the weekend Conroy kicked Telstra out of the race to build the National Broadband Network after Telstra was arrogant enough to submit a proposal that it knew didn't meet the criteria.

It would be an absolute disaster for this country if Telstra was allowed to control the NBN the way it controls the current infrastructure. The Howard government and Helen "Coonan the Librarian" spent a decade kowtowing to Telstra's demands and few people thought Conroy had the cojones to stand up to Sol and his amigos. Had Conroy let Telstra's latest arrogance go unchecked, he would have given the telco a green light to dictate the terms of the NBN. It seems Conroy the Barbarian might be a tougher opponent than Telstra thought.

I doubt this is the end of Telstra's involvement in the NBN, as Conroy has the discretion to decide whether or not a proposal is accepted. As my colleague Stuart Corner points out the Request For Proposals is only the first step of a long process. I think you'll see a far more humble Telstra come back to the negotiation table in the new year.

So Conroy has finally flexed his muscles and put Telstra in its place, but it's hard to praise a man who is also hellbent on crippling Australia's broadband with mandatory ISP-level internet filtering.

Conroy's plans to introduce an internet ''clean feed'' have made international headlines and been compared to the heavy-handed censorship employed in countries such as China and Iran. The idea has been criticised as technically unworkable, easily bypassed and a threat to civil liberties, with the government's own tests revealing it will dramatically slow internet speeds whilst still letting some ''unwanted'' sites slip through.

Filtering's only support has come from the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby and right wing Senators such as Family First's Stephen Fielding. Senator Conroy's refusal to define the term ''unwanted'' has done little to reassure those concerned that filtering could be abused by politicians looking to cut deals in order to get other legislation passed. The government's proposed list of 10,000 blacklisted websites would remain secret, with its backers in the senate already talking of expanding the list to include online gambling and legal pornography sites.

Ironically Telstra is probably the hero in the mandatory filtering debate. Its refusal to participate in the filtering trials could be the final nail in the coffin, with Telstra executive Greg Winn publicly slamming the idea and describing it as ''like trying to boil the ocean''.

iiNet has indicated it would participate only to assist in pointing out how pointless the filtering plan is, while Optus has agreed to severely scaled-down tests. The results of these limited tests may allow Senator Conroy to abandon the filtering plan in the new year while attempting to save face, although his victory against Telstra might inspire him to dig in on mandatory filtering.

So where does that leave Stephen Conroy? Is he the internet's knight in shining armour, or its executioner?


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