Australian Broadcasting Authority chairman Peter Webb responds to Robin Whittle's critique of his speech

This is

It is a response to the critique at

The speech itself is ople/Roger.Clarke/II/ABAWebb.html and the ABA plans to put a copy of it at their WWW site:

The ABA sent me this text on Friday 10 May 1996. I converted it to HTML and Roger Clarke put it on his WWW site.

Robin Whittle

Robin Whittle has offered a critique of a speech I gave at the 1996 On-Line Services Regulation Forum on 24 April last.

Unfortunately this speech has not yet (as at 8 May) made it on to the ABA's Home Page, but it should get there within the next 24-48 hours. The address for the Home Page is

Mr Whittle's critique makes it most desirable that interested parties read the speech for themselves.

I don't think Mr Whittle has provided an objective assessment of its contents, so I will reiterate, in short form, the two main points I made.

Firstly, I stressed the importance of those involved in the online services industry to arrange its affairs so that it can speak to the community and to the State and Federal Governments with a representative voice about matters that are clearly of community concern.

This is a point I have made several times before. I made it again because pressure is obviously building, and building quickly, for State Attorneys General to introduce criminal offence provisions that will affect members of the industry. I referred to a Press Release issued by the NSW Attorney General as evidence of a State Government's intention to introduce criminal offences concerning online services, and I referred also to Federal Government policy statements that have been thoughtfully and carefully developed, and which hold out the prospect of substantial self-regulation.

The point I made about these matters is that government action of one kind or another can reasonably be anticipated in the near future, and that the online industry needs to move faster to get itself, and its various sectors, organised, so that it can make representations to different levels of government about them.

A failure to do so will mean that Federal and State Governments will not have the benefit of an industry point of view, and I said that, in effect, this would be a shame for all concerned.

Since I gave my speech it has become apparent that there is some misunderstanding about the nature of the ABA's role in the development by the Standing Committee of Attorneys General of new criminal laws. It should be clearly understood, and I made this plain in the Q & A session at the conference, that the ABA has had no involvement in the development of these laws.

The ABA has been directed to report on the introduction of a regime of substantial self- regulation by the online industry, utilising industry-derived codes of practice. Criminal laws are predominantly the preserve of the States, and it seems clear from the public record that serious consideration is being given to the introduction of such laws.

I sought to explain what was on the public record about the intentions of the Standing Committee, and I sought to illustrate that the Standing Committee is unlikely to be deterred from its public intentions. I did this to emphasise that the need is all the more pressing for the industry to get organised so that it can speak to government.

My speech went on to acknowledge the efforts presently being made to form industry associations of one kind or another, and I did so generously, and not condescendingly as Mr Whittle claims. I believe, as I said in my speech, that the need for industry arrangements of the kind I have been calling for is now widely acknowledged. The debate now is about their nature and form, and the ABA will continue to encourage debate about those issues. The ABA has, in fact, had discussions with a large number of putative industry associations and has sought to develop an open and ongoing relationship with them. We will continue to work productively with them and to encourage their efforts to provide industry representation.

The future of substantial self-regulation of the industry is absolutely dependent upon there being proper arrangements for industry representation. Without an industry structure, industry-based codes of practice cannot be developed with credibility. Industry members must unite to both develop and enforce such codes.

My fundamental point was that government and the industry need to speak to each other, and that the industry had a lot to lose if proper representations were not made on its behalf.

My second point sought to address the claim often made by internet users that the internet is the last bastion of free speech. It needs to be established that freedom of speech has never been an absolute and unfettered right in our society.

However, the issue is a serious one, deserving of serious examination, and I sought to tackle it head on and to illustrate that there are, in fact, many views about freedom of speech which acknowledge that, when its proper dimensions are established (as they long have been), the tendency to claim a much wider dimension for them, although understandable, doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Robin Whittle's critique doesn't really, to my ear, carry the flavour or substance of these points, and I don't believe that a reader of his piece would at all understand what it was I actually said.

I hope this synopsis helps provide the necessary balance.

I also hope Mr Whittle gives some thought to withdrawing some of the offensive remarks he made about me. Among other things he accuses me of 'intentional bastardisation' of Mr Graham Menhennitt's submission to the inquiry. I did not, in fact quote from Mr Menhennitt's submission, although Mr Menhennit used very similar, though not identical, words in his submission to those that I quoted. In fact, several other submitters also used very similar words to those used by Mr Menhennitt. Those submissions appeared to take the form of a petition, and each of them contains slight variations to some original text. It is not at all clear who is the original author of the petition, but it is clear that this draft petition has been in circulation and that several submitters have adopted and adapted it. Perhaps Mr Menhennitt is the author of the original, but I have no way of knowing that. I only know that I have not misrepresented, and and have not sought to misrepresent, the views of Mr Menhennitt.

Even if I had quoted Mr Menhennitt, whose words bear a close resemblance to those that I did quote, I think readers of my speech should note that the very next words I spoke after I finished the quote in question were 'There is quite a lot to be said for these points of view. Freedom of speech is a freedom which should never be lightly diminished, and that section of the internet community that has fears about the potential for new laws to radically affect them, and the freedoms they value, is entitled to protest, and to have its protest assessed and valued'.

Just how Mr Whittle can claim 'intentional bastardisation' on my part is completely beyond my understanding and I hope that he reconsiders and withdraws it, and does so without qualification.

Robust debate is one thing, but claims of this kind are out of order, unnecessary and counter- productive.

I would appreciate it if you would arrange for the foregoing response to be made available to those members of any newsgroups which have been directed to your critique.

Peter Webb

Chairman ABA