Internet Censorship in Australia

By Elisabeth Cooke

When I think about censorship, I instantly recall the image of my mum jumping up off the couch to change the channel when a ‘grown up’ show came on too close to bedtime. Or seeing pictures in the newspaper with big black bars blocking out all the bits I was not meant to see. The censorship of radio, tv and print media now seems much simpler than the internet censorship issues we are faced with today. The concerns are predominately the same: protecting children, preventing criminal acts etc. However, the risk to our civil liberty seems substantially greater.

Last month, newly declared ‘Villain of the Internet’ Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced a mandatory censorship proposal, grabbing headlines around the world, as the proposal joined Australia to the ranks of Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korean, Burma and Vietnam. Legislation to implement the mandatory ISP blocking of blacklisted websites is expected within the coming weeks. While the proposal is cause for concern, it is worth discussing the current model before critiquing the proposal.

The current model of internship censorship in Australia is complaints driven. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) receives complaints about internet content and reviews it according to the Internet Industry Association Codes. Based on their assessment, the ACMA has the right to issue notices and direct Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) to comply with industry standards. However, the ISP’s are not always responsible for the content unless they are themselves the hosts of the content in question. Of course, the ISP’s require government licenses to operate and it does not take a stretch of the imagination to fathom instances where ISP’s may censor content on governmental request. The ACMA can require hosts to comply with the law in Australia, but hosts outside of Australia are beyond the reach of the ACMA’s jurisdiction. It is worth noting that personal communications are not with the scope of the ACMA. The content of emails and attachments are not regulated under this model of censorship.

There are a number of concerns regarding the current model. The fact that the model is complaints driven begs the question ‘who is complaining’? Are specific interest groups able to lobby the ACMA to remove ‘questionable’ content? There is also no formal and open appeals process to review decisions. Notably, the members of the AMCA are not elected, they are appointed from varying backgrounds.

Understandably, the ACMA does not have an easy task. They sift through shocking content for the benefit of our society and a critique of the current model is by no way intended to diminish the vital role they play. However, the proposed model is of much greater concern.

The Proposed ISP Filtering Plan

The proposed model, Australia’s ISP Filtering Plan, would initiate mandatory ISP-level filtering on all Refused Classification content. The Refused Classification content is defined as:

– Child sexual abuse imagery

– Bestiality

– Sexual violence

– Crime instruction

– Drug use

– Terrorist act advocacy

The list has been compiled by the ACMA based on public complaints and assessed against National Classification scheme criteria. There is an appeal process – to an industry body, the Internet Industry Association. At first glance, the list seems reasonable- it certainly isn’t the type of content my mother would have wanted me to be exposed to. But the list of content is quite broad and would apply to the strictest threshold at state level to determine Australia’s threshold on each of the areas of refused classification. For example, Queensland’s abortion laws are stricter than any other state or territory. Therefore a mandatory ban would sit at the Queensland threshold for the entire country.

Of further concern is the broad scope of the topics. There is growing concern that topics such as euthanasia, abortion, safe injections sites, graffiti art, gay and lesbian content and social/political forums fall into the Refused Classification topics. Adding sites to a blacklist with such a broad scope increases the risk that legitimate sites were also block, never mind the negative impact on internet speed. Of further concern is the idea that even if sites are blocked, there is an important element in indexing sites so that at least you know what material is unavailable. Otherwise we are ignorant to the existence of broad scope of information.

Mandatory censorship provides a false sense of security. The technology used to block sites is not 100% accurate. Changes in domain names or search words would result in a never ending cat and mouse game, trying to chase illegal or legitimately blacklisted content out of Australian. The likelihood of being able to successfully block ‘bad’ content comes at an extraordinary risk to our civil liberties.

The balance of protecting Australian society and the welfare of children with freedom of information and free speech is delicate to say the least. A proposed solution to cope with this balance is to educate the public about the internet and to provide tools for peoples homes in order to allow them greater and direct control over what their families can assess. Interestingly, the Australian Government is implementing mandatory censorship after taking away the initiative providing free home control packages to families, claiming the software was not being used. There can be no doubting the abhorrent content of some internet sites and need to censor material according to our laws. But we must consider what we are willing to gamble to attain even the false sense of security provided by the proposed mandatory internet censorship.

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