December 15, 2009

Australia Proposes Controversial Internet Filter Legislation

A new Internet filtering system being introduced in Australia would block obscene and crime-linked Web sites, but many are concerned about how it will work and if it will curtail freedoms.

Australia would also become one of the strictest Internet regulators among the world's democracies if it were to adopt a mandatory screening system, as authoritarian regimes commonly impose such controls.

China's plan to install filtering software on all PCs sold in the country drew international criticism earlier this year.

But the Australian government said on Tuesday it would introduce legislation next year for the filter system to help protect Australians, especially children, from harmful material on the Internet.

But many who oppose the idea say it will not prevent determined users from sharing such content, and could lead to unwarranted censorship.

The government would be transparent in compiling its blacklist of Web sites, but did not give details, according to Communication Minister Stephen Conroy.

He explained that the Australian filter was among a number of new measures aimed at strengthening online protection for families by blocking material such as child pornography, beastiality, rape and other sexual violence.

Australian sites already ban such material from being published on the web, but the government currently has no control over it being accessed on servers located overseas.

But the ambitious idea may not be completely successful, Conroy conceded.

He released a statement saying the government has always maintained there is no silver bullet solution to cyber-safety. But, "it is important that all Australians, particularly young children, are protected from this material."

Meanwhile, a majority of illegal material such as child pornography is often traded on peer-to-peer networks or chats, which would not be covered by the filter.

Colin Jacobs, vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote online freedoms, said the government knows this plan will not help Australian kids, nor will it aid in the policing of prohibited material.

Jacobs said in an online posting they were at a loss to explain the minister's enthusiasm for this proposal, given the problems in maintaining a secret blacklist and deciding what goes on it.

His group fears that the blacklist of sites to be blocked by the filter and the reasons for doing so would be kept secret, meaning legitimate sites might possibly be censored.

Blacklisting offensive sites using a filter system is feasible as long as the list is limited to a defined number of Web addresses, according to Telstra, Australia's largest Internet service provider.

However, the company acknowledged that no single measure would make the Internet 100 percent safe.

Telstra Director of Public Policy David Quilty said the blocking of a blacklist of sites is one element of the multifaceted approach that is required to create a safer online environment.

But one problem is that smaller Internet service providers would likely struggle to pay the costs of imposing the new filters, Jacobs said.

Conroy said the government would help providers implement the filters, but he did offer any details about how they would do that.

Any Internet filter proposal that passes would likely not be enacted until 2011.