Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The concept of government-backed web censorship is usually associated with nations where human rights and freedom of speech are routinely curtailed. But if Canberra’s plans for a mandatory Internet filter go ahead, Australia may soon become the first Western democracy to join the ranks of Iran, China and a handful of other nations where access to the Internet is restricted by the state.
Plans for a mandatory Internet filter have been a long-term subject of controversy since they were first announced by Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, in May 2008 as part of an $106 million “cybersafety plan.” The plan’s stated purpose is to protect children when they go online by preventing them from stumbling on illegal material like child pornography. To do this, Conroy’s Ministry has recommended blacking out about 10,000 websites deemed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to be so offensive that they are categorized as ‘RC,’ or Refused Classification.
The government won’t reveal an official list of the URLs on the current blacklist, but Conroy’s office says it includes sites containing child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. “Under Australia’s existing [laws] this material is not available in news agencies, it is not on library shelves, you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema and it is not shown on television,” Conroy’s office e-mailed in a statement. But in March 2009, when a 2,395-site blacklist was leaked to Wikileaks, an online clearinghouse for anonymous submissions, it seemed confusingly broad, containing, among others, the websites of a dentist from Queensland, a pet-care facility in Queensland, and a site belonging to a school cafeteria consultant.
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At the time, Conroy told the Sydney Morning Herald that any Australians involved in the leak could face criminal charges. “No one interested in cyber safety would condone the leaking of this list,” he said.
Since then, criticism of the proposed Internet filter has escalated. “Nobody likes it,” says Scott Ludlam, a senator from the Australian Greens Party. “Everyone from the communications industry to child protection rights and online civil liberties groups think this idea is deeply flawed.” Throughout 2009 GetUp!, an internet-based political activism organization, launched an advertising campaign to raise public awareness about the government’s proposal. (That July, the advertisement the group made was banned from screenings on Qantas domestic flights into Canberra.) In February, Anonymous, a community of Internet users, which include hackers, shut down the Australian Parliament’s web site in their second attack against the filter, which they called “Operation: Titstorm” — a reference to the sexual content that the filter will be blocking. Save the Children has questioned the efficacy of the filter in protecting children, and in March, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders listed Australia as a country that’s “under surveillance” in its annual “Internet Enemies” report, which rounds up the “worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net.”
This article was posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 9:17 am