iLocal News Archives

Internet censorship in Australia

When most people think about Internet censorship, the usual suspects immediately come to mind: Communist China and repressive Islamic countries. Unfortunately, Westerners have an embarrassment all their own: Australia.

Freedom House, a non-profit U.S. organisation dedicated to spreading human rights and freedom, undertakes regular surveys on press freedom and censorship. Last year’s survey found that only 21% of the world’s population enjoy access to a truly free press.

Arab and Communist societies have a long history of suppressing freedom of speech, so Internet censorship in these nations comes as no surprise. However, at the time Australia first proposed its own form of Internet censorship, it was still considered a country with a completely free press.

Australia’s off-line censorship laws are among the most restrictive in Western democracies and the Net censorship laws are more akin to those in totalitarian regimes than to those, if any, in other countries purporting to be Western democracies.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999, the Australian Internet censorship legislation, came into effect on January 1, 2000. Under this legislation, broad categories of Internet content were prohibited. Australians are forbidden from seeing online any material which could be inappropriate for children. Such content includes material containing detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use; child pornography; bestiality; excessively violent or sexually violent material; real or implied depictions of sexual activity; and material which deals with issues or contains depictions which require an adult perspective. All of this would seem reasonable.

Enforcement of the regulation of the Internet is complaint-driven. Individuals, organizations, or the Commonwealth, a State or Territory can make a complaint to the ABA. If the ABA determines that the “prohibited content” is hosted in Australia, it will direct the local ISP to remove it.

If the “prohibited content” is hosted outside Australia, the ABA will notify the suppliers of approved filters of the content in accordance with the Internet Industry Association’s code of practice. The Australian Internet Industry has a list of 16 approved filters.

Testing by Computer Choice (September/October 2000) found that innocuous content, such as medical sites, were often blocked while some adult content passed through the filter. For example, iFilter blocked several Biblical sites, a family and child mediation service approved by the Australian Federal Attorney-General, the Institute of Australian Psychiatrists, and information about Catholics helping street kids. Apparently technology is no substitution for parental supervision.

Aside from costing Australians 2.7 million Australian dollars per year and making their country the laughingstock of the free world, the legislation has had minimal effect. Despite the multitude of pornography sites on the Internet, there was no pent-up demand to shut them down; within six months of introducing of the legislation, the ABA received only 201 complaints about Internet content. By the end of June 2000, 197 investigations had been concluded. Of these, 37 were terminated due to lack of information (for example, the details provided with the complaint were insufficient to locate the content). Of the remaining 160 completed investigations, 93 resulted in the location of prohibited or potentially prohibited content, while 67 were found not to contain prohibited content. Around one third of complaints related to content hosted in Australia.

The prohibited content included content hosted in Usenet newsgroups, which is treated as content hosted in Australia if the complainant has accessed the content from his or her ISP’s newsgroup server. The ABA issued final take-down notices for 62 postings of Internet content and referred 94 items to the makers of approved filters. Of the 62 items of Internet content that were the subject of take-down notices, at least 17 were later moved to ISPs outside Australia. So approximately one-third of the offensive websites were simply relocated to servers outside
of Australia.

In summary, filtering software products are ineffective, and Australia cannot control websites hosted outside its borders. The government won the approval of a few moralists who were happy that “something has been done” about online smut, whether or not the measures had any real effect.

However, a dangerous precedent has been set, and it is entirely possible that the categories of prohibited Internet content will be expanded in the future to ban political websites that threaten “Australian values”.

In a 2001 case, Victoria anarchist Matthew Tayor was prosecuted by the Australian Federal police at the behest of the FBI after posting threatening statements inspired by Jim Bell’s “Assassination Politics” on websites in Ohio and California.

This has not happened. Beginning in July this year the Federal Government of Australia started censoring over 500 websites that pertain to specific themes deemed unsuitable for Internet users. The censorship took place through two of the largest Aussie Internet service providers, Telstra and Optus. The Australian Communications and Media Authority, with a few International partners, personally selected the ISPs to be filtered, a procedure that was previously part of the Federal Government’s $9.8 million plan to scrape the Australian Internet of specially selected sites. Though that plan was cut from the Federal budget, Telstra and Optus remained on-board to voluntarily filter offending sites.

The EFA are hoping the process will include an appeals court for websites that have been unfairly listed. They are calling for the government to be more transparent in their process and are asking for the censorship discussion to be opened up further so that the correct content can be more
closely targeted.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *