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[liberationtech] The coming internet censorship regime in Australia

Terry Winograd winograd at
Wed Mar 24 10:43:14 PDT 2010

Australia's biggest technology companies, communications academics and
many lobby groups have delivered a withering critique of the
government's plans to censor the internet.

The government today published most of the 174 submissions it received
relating to improving the transparency and accountability measures of
its internet filtering policy.

Legislation to force ISPs to implement the policy is expected to be
introduced within weeks. The filters will block a blacklist of "refused
classification" websites for all Australians on a mandatory basis.

Most of the submissions called for full transparency surrounding the
operation of the list and for all sites placed on the list by
bureaucrats at the Australian Communications and Media Authority first
to be examined by the Classification Board.

They supported a regular review of the list by an independent expert and
the ability for blacklisted sites to appeal.

But many reiterated their concerns that the policy is fundamentally
unsound and would do little to make the internet a safer place for
children. Many said the scope of blocked content was too broad and would
render legitimate sites inaccessible, while the process of adding sites
to the blacklist could be subject to abuse by bureaucrats and

Google, which today officially stopped censoring search results in
China, said it had held discussions with users and parents around
Australia and "the strong view from parents was that the government's
proposal goes too far and would take away their freedom of choice around
what information they and their children can access".

Google also said implementing mandatory filtering across Australia's
millions of internet users could "negatively impact user access speeds",
while filtering material from high-volume sites such as Wikipedia,
YouTube, Facebook and Twitter "appears not to be technologically
possible as it would have such a serious impact on internet access".

"We have a number of other concerns, including that filtering may give a
false sense of security to parents, it could damage Australia's
international reputation and it can be easily circumvented," Google

The search giant said it was preferable instead to focus on improving
education around cyber safety and providing tools that people could
install on their home computers to block unwanted content.

Many of Google's concerns are mirrored by many of the other submissions
by academics, technology companies, industry groups, lobby groups and

Microsoft demanded protection against "arbitrary executive decision
making" surrounding content added to the list and noted the potential
for banned material to be loaded on to a site without the sanction of
the owner of that site.

Yahoo and Google's submissions, along with many others, expressed
concerns that the scope of content to be filtered was too broad.

"Yahoo are entirely supportive of any effort to make the internet a
safer place for children, however mandatory filtering of all RC material
could block content with a strong social, political and/or educational
value," Yahoo's submission read.

It listed some examples of innocuous sites that could be blocked

- Safe injecting and other harm minimisation websites.

- Euthanasia discussion forums.

- A video on creating graffiti art.

- Anti-abortion websites.

- Gay and lesbian forums that discuss sexual experiences.

- Explorations of the geo-political causes of terrorism where specific
terrorist organisations and propaganda are cited as reference material.

Yahoo also pointed to a recent paper that provided "several examples
where knee jerk regulatory reactions to 'controversial' content have
been entirely out of step with broader public opinion".

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations fears sites that are
valuable to sexual health promotion might be placed on the blacklist.

"Social research has shown that information, 'chat' and even
pornographic sites play an important role in providing information about
sexuality and sexual health, particularly for men who have sex with men
and same-sex attracted young people," it wrote.

Mark McLelland, an associate professor in the sociology program at the
University of Wollongong, said the filters could block access to an
entire genre of niche but popular Japanese animated fiction.

Even the Australian Christian Lobby, one of the biggest supporters of
the internet filtering plan, said inadvertently adding innocuous content
to the blacklist would "undermine the entire policy".

Telstra fears the blacklist of banned sites could be leaked - as has
already occurred last year - and "could be used as a directory of
harmful content, which would therefore become more easily available to
users that are able to circumvent the ISP filter or who are located

Colin Jacobs, spokesman for online users' lobby group Electronic
Frontiers Australia, said it was clear from the submissions that the
vast majority have a difficult time stomaching the filter at all.

"Many of the submissions stated flat out that the filter was not
needed," he said.

"Most of the rest held their noses and tried to come up with a way this
inherently secret process could be made more transparent."

Douglas Schuler
douglas at
Public Sphere Project
Liberating Voices!  A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution (project)
Liberating Voices!  A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution (book)

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