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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Global Toolbox

Controlling the Internet down under

By Bruce C. Swaffield

The land Down Under may soon impose strict Internet controls. Proponents say the move will protect children. Opponents contend the Great Aussie Firewall is nothing more than outright censorship.

The Australian government announced in December that it will move forward in early 2010 with plans to implement an Internet filtering system to censor questionable Web sites.

As you might imagine, reaction from around the world has been swift and severe.

In an open letter to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Reporters Without Borders (rsf.org) spoke out against “a mandatory Internet filtering system.”

RSF also said:

“While it is essential to combat child sex abuse, pursuing this draconian filtering project is not the solution. If Australia were to introduce systematic online content filtering, with a relatively broad definition of the content targeted, it would be joining an Internet censors club that includes such countries as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

The possibility of blocking certain Internet sites within the country was first discussed in 2007 by members of the Australian Labor Party. A year later, following a closed test of Internet service provider filters by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the government began to consider enacting such a program. Since June 2008, Sen. Stephen Conroy, the minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, has actively promoted the use of filters to protect children from pornography and violence on the Internet. He has been harshly criticized by individuals and organizations.

“Senator Conroy insists mandatory filtering will protect children from violent and pornographic content online, but that’s simply untrue,” said Michael Meloni, a production manager for an online media company, in a commentary on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Web site in October 2008. “It’s rare that surfing the Web will unwillingly land you head first in illicit pictures and movies. On most occasions, you need to be searching for risqué material to find it, and that won’t change with a filter in place.

“As for banning Web sites that are ‘inappropriate,’ is the government really in the best position to decide what that is? Does inappropriate include information on sexual health, breast-feeding, drugs and abortion? The one-size-fits-all approach of filtering at the ISP level causes problems because young children, teenagers and adults often use the same family computer,” Meloni added.

RSF mentioned the same problems in its correspondence to Rudd. “Firstly, the decision to block access to an ‘inappropriate’ Web site would be taken not by a judge but by a government agency, the ACMA. ... The ACMA classifies content secretly, compiling a Web site blacklist by means of unilateral and arbitrary administrative decision-making.

“Secondly, the criteria that the proposed law would use are too vague. Filtering would be applied to all content considered ‘inappropriate,’ a very slippery term that could be interpreted very differently by different people. In all probability, filtering would target ‘refused classification’ (RC) sites, a category that is extremely controversial as it is being applied to content that is completely unrelated to efforts to combat child sex abuse and sexual violence. ... Subjects such as abortion, anorexia, Aborigines and legislation on the sale of marijuana would all risk being filtered, as would media reports on these subjects.”

According to Conroy, however, “The government has been clear that mandatory filtering will only be implemented for RC-rated content. This content is illegal to display, distribute, sell or make available for hire under existing Australian law. RC-rated content is not available in news agencies, it is not on the library shelves, you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema, and it is not shown on television” (see tinyurl.com/yduxyys).

In a joint statement on the Civil Liberties Australia Web site (tinyurl.com/yjl7hpg), 10 organizations throughout the country expressed opposition to the government plan:

“The proposed filter fails to meet the test of an effective child protection measure that respects the rights of children. Mandatory Internet filtering curtails our human rights without offering any effective protection for children.

“The proposed scheme will also block a range of material that it is perfectly legal to view both online and offline. It will be shrouded in secrecy: there will be no effective oversight of the secret blacklist of banned material. The content to be blocked is currently sites that are ‘refused classification’; it could easily and covertly be expanded to include any material that a federal government wishes to suppress.”

Political analysts predict that there are not enough members of the Australian Labor Party in Parliament for any proposal of this type to pass. But, as we all know, strange things occur in politics.

We would be wise to watch what happens and also send an e-mail to Prime Minister Rudd letting him know how we feel in this country. Find a contact form at pm.gov.au.

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