Censorship Down Under

Australia's proposed Internet restrictions would be more sweeping than any yet seen in a democratic country

Australia’s proposed Internet restrictions would be more sweeping than any yet seen in a democratic country

The Australian government plans to introduce a law establishing online censorship so broad that some experts compare it to that of Saudi Arabia.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy says the new regulations are needed to protect the nation from child pornography and inadvertent exposure to other undesirable material. The government also argues the need to bring the Internet in line with other communications media, such as DVDs and TV. Opponents—including tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, as well as local organizations like the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations and Electronic Frontiers Australia—have responded that the scope of the content to be filtered is too broad and that the law will prove ineffective.

For the technology industry, more is at stake than just free speech: Restrictions on the flow of information threaten the commercial interests of Internet companies. But this isn’t simply a story of corporate greed. In a twist on the traditional history of capitalism, commercial interests on the Internet are often closely entwined with those of the public.

While no one would defend child pornography, many would argue that they have a right to buy a cheaper airline ticket offered on an overseas server and to read material that’s freely available online, even if it lacks a copyright in their own country. And banning content is a slippery slope.

”To police the Internet and maintain freedom of speech is very, very hard,” says Rob Faris, research director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. What is happening in Australia, he says, ”highlights the dilemma.”

The proposed law, which was announced in December, will take the form of a legislative amendment to Australia’s Broadcasting Services Act. It will require all Internet service providers to block material hosted on overseas servers that has been rated ”Refused Classification” by the country’s Classification Board. The board rates material, such as movies and computer games, based on offensive language, nudity, sex, and violence.

Although the board would not rate the entire Internet, a blacklist of Web sites would be developed based on public complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Regulators at ACMA will refer the site to the Classification Board.

Critics say that applying the existing classification scheme to the Internet could lead to the blocking of hundreds of thousands of sites, including many whose content is purely educational. Mark McLelland, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wollongong, in New South Wales, notes that millions of players of online games, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, communicate in real time, via text or even voice. ”Does the whole game become blacklisted if someone were to make a complaint to the ACMA about the ’unsuitable’ content generated in these communicative spaces?” he asks. Also, the blacklist would be secret, so a site that is unfairly blocked may have no way to appeal that decision.

However, Senator Scott Ludlam, a member of the Australian Greens, says the larger issue is that the filtering system will fail. ”It simply will not work,” he says. ”It will be trivial to circumvent.”

There are a number of technical ways to get around filtering, including using a virtual private network, which provides a secure channel between a computer and a Web site; proxy Web sites, which display banned material within them; and anonymizing software, such as JonDo or Tor.

It may seem strange that Australia should join such Internet-censoring nations as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Yet censorship has already gotten a start in democratic countries: Many ISPs in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom voluntarily filter Web sites. Mostly, these ISPs block access to child pornography sites.

The Australian law would go further, constituting ”the most extreme filtering by any democratic country,” says Harvard’s Faris, a contributor to the OpenNet Initiative. ”Australia will be closer to Saudi Arabia, where most of the filters are directed at socially sensitive material,” he says.

Recent polls show that about 90 percent of Australians are concerned about the proposed law. In February, a group calling itself Anonymous launched a denial-of-service attack on government Web sites. More recently, free-speech activists have organized rallies, picnics, and petition drives and set up a dedicated YouTube channel. Colin Jacobs of Electronic Frontiers Australia says it is unclear whether the government will have enough votes to pass the law this summer.

”The proposed law sets a very dangerous global precedent,” says Gwen Hinze, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the most venerable defenders of Internet freedom. ”Many repressive governments are watching what Australia is proposing, and they are likely to point to it to justify what they are doing to exert control over their countries’ own Internet.”

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