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The Australian Internet Filter Issue 13 April 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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After reading that Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, addressed the Sydney Institute on 12 April 2010 regarding the proposed Australian Internet Filter, I decided to go and look up his speech.

This I did because the media can sometimes take comments out of context. Yet nothing that I found in the speech made me any less concerned about the issue of net filtering. So I decided to do some more research and break it down, in an attempt to understand it better.

Here’s what I found.

Here is the speech from 12 April 2010 in full, but I have proceeded to quote the part of it relating the filter (or ‘regulation’):

Regulation

The internet is the greatest transformation tool we have ever seen and the Rudd Government is ensuring Australia takes advantage of every opportunity it presents, through the NBN.

But while the internet is poised to become even more central to our lives, and much more accessible — can it remain largely unregulated?

With great opportunity, comes even greater responsibility, and having sensible, appropriate protections in place is also the role of government.

There are some who want to argue that on the internet, people should be able to publish anything they like — regardless of whether it contravenes laws in the off-line world.

The internet is an incredible piece of technology and in our lifetime it’s unlikely we’ll see anything like it again.

But for all its technical brilliance, the internet is a distribution and communications platform.

Having no regulation to combat illegal activity actually weakens all that is good about the internet.

The Government has always maintained there is no silver bullet when it comes to cyber safety and we have never said ISP-level filtering alone would help fight child pornography or keep children safe online.

The Government’s $125.8 million Cyber Safety Policy incorporates a range of measures, including law enforcement, research and education and awareness.

The Rudd Government does not support Refused Classification content being available on the internet.

This content includes 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 classification regulations this material is not available in newsagencies; it is not on library shelves; you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema and it is not shown on television.

Refused Classification material is not available on Australian hosted websites.

The Government’s proposal will bring the treatment of overseas hosted content into line by requiring ISPs to block overseas content that has been identified as Refused Classification.

This is a modest measure, which reflects long held community standards about the type of content that is unacceptable in a civilized society.

Those who claim that the Government’s approach is akin to the sort of political censorship practiced by authoritarian regimes are simply misleading the Australian public.

I feel the urge to point out the following.

1) Is it censorship?

Yes.

Definition of censoring: to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.

The internet filter, as proposed by the Government, is supposed to include a non-optional ISP filter to restrict access to certain websites which will be part of a non-disclosed black list of content.

Ergo: it is censorship.

2) Is it political censorship?

Definition of political censorship: when a government attempts to conceal, distort, or falsify information that its citizens receive by suppressing or crowding out political news that the public might receive through news outlets.

The filter is said to target illegal (by Australian Laws) material. So strictly speaking, it should not filter out political views etc.

However, few (read: none) of the other countries of the so-called ‘free world’ have taken the extraordinary step of trying to censor the internet. In fact, these comments are akin to this one:

The Internet cannot be something open where anything is said and done. Every country has to apply its own rules and norms.

Which were made only one month ago by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez according to Reuters.

I would join the ranks of those others who have raised their concerns about the slippery slope of this type of censoring. It is already clear that the current proposed filter is very different from the internet policies in the 2007 Labor election platform. According to Libertus.net, the Government election policy ‘fact sheet’ regarding the internet (issued five days before the election) stated that ISPs would be required to offer a so-called ‘clean feed’ to subscribers.

The word offer implies user choice and, ultimately, control.

However, only a month after the election (December 2007), it was already understood that

anyone wanting uncensored access to the internet will have to opt out of the service.

That in itself creates flags in my mind – in stead of an opt-in, there is an opt-out option, meaning that choices are already being made for you without your say. Also, if you were to opt-out, what would stop you from being placed on an opt-out register, which, in the wrong hands (or in that of the government) could be seen as an easy-to-access list of people who may be looking at illegal material, or who are, (gasp) bad parents, instantly placing you under scrutiny?

Only 10 months later, (October 2008), it was revealed that the opt-out of the filtering system would no longer be allowed, and all of a sudden, there were other shifts in language which was different from the election policies:

Internet users would not be allowed to opt-out of ISP-level blocking of access to content in one of two tiers of blocking. Labor had not previously mentioned blocking that is non-optional for adult Internet users, nor “two tiers” of blocking.

In December 2009, the latest changes were made, and are the ones that are currently being discussed for implementation.

For a full understanding (and analysis) of the current proposed net filter, go here.

That was a very long and winding way of saying that I have my doubts that there is no slippery slope scenario here. I believe that the changes have already proven to slowly be sliding into stricter censorship than its original scope, and who is to say that it will not continue?

I have other questions that make me uncomfortable:

Who decides what will go on the blacklist? (It is supposed to be made by an independent body not attached to government, but who issues their guidelines?)

How do we determine what is ‘long held community standards’? (Being homosexual used to be illegal, but it is not anymore, so clearly standards can, and do change, hopefully for the better?) and who determines these ‘community standards’? Perhaps most people can agree on child pornography, but there are also people out there (and entire sub-communities, like the catholic church) that would say that homosexuality is not something acceptable according to community standards. Yet I disagree. So who do they listen to?

How do we know that these blacklists are not being abused? I suppose Australia is lucky to have an elected government that could (arguably) be seen as trying to do what they think is best for the population, but are they always benevolent? Aren’t Governments made up of people with all their blemishes (including petty feelings like revenge, lust for power, etc) that you and I have? Since the blacklist is supposed to be secret, how can we know that the content included in the list sticks to the original purpose of the filter, and is not changed later on?

Does the Australian Government really think that Australian enforcement agencies (and parents) are so impotent that they need to implement a blanket censorship of internet material? It boggles the mind.

If anyone could shed any light on these issues, please leave a comment!

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