The NSW Council for Civil Liberties claimed today that Australia’s repressive new internet censorship laws will not stop computer-savvy children from looking at banned sites. Council vice-president, David Bernie called the plan “political grandstanding” and a “gimmick” which is being sold as protecting the public from pornography but will instead lull parents into a false sense of security. Bernie also said the legislation has serious implications for freedom of expression. “Only adults would be restricted by the filters," he said.
The new rules will come into force on 20 January and will restrict access to age restricted content (commercial MA15+ content and R18+ content) either hosted in Australia or provided from Australia. The framework will apply to most content service providers who supply content via a carriage service. Labor justified its new policy on the basis that the Howard Government’s proposed policy of providing free NetNanny software to all households who wanted it didn’t adequately protect children.
The onus will be on Internet Service Providers to provide so-called “clean feeds” and the program will be “opt out” which means that users can elect not to receive the censored feed. This puts the onus to act on those who don’t want censorship and is a change from Labor’s original position which was to make the policy “opt in”. Deliberately announcing the policy on New Years Eve (to minimise media scrutiny), new Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy claimed the scheme will better protect children from pornography and violent websites. He also said the Government will work with the industry to ensure the filters do not affect internet response times.
This latest clumsy attempt to regulate the internet by the newly elected Federal Labor Government has been roundly condemned in the internet community both inside and outside Australia. Blorge.com points out that Australia already has some of the most restrictive internet censorship in the western world with outlaws X-rated pornography, casino-style internet gambling, R-rated computer games, Bit torrents, and certain forms of “hate speech.” The new censorship broadens these wide laws to include “pornography and inappropriate material,” as well.
Techcrunch’s Duncan Riley said just how far “inappropriate material” may extend was not made clear. He offered the example that questioning Government policy about Aboriginal people could be deemed to be discrimination under Australian law and hence blocked by the censorship regime. He also suggested bloggers could be blocked if they allow inappropriate comments. He said the legislation meant Australia would be joining China as one of the few countries globally that broadly censor the internet. “If there is one certainty in any country that implements broadscale censorship, once they start blocking content it doesn’t stop,” said Riley. “And certainly every do-gooder group and special interest lobbyist will be wanting the Government to add to the list.”
Ars Technica said adults will have to give up a little privacy to opt out. Users will need prove their age by supplying their full names and either a credit card or digital signature approved for online use. Content publishers are also required by law to keep records of who accessed R18+ content and with what credentials for a period of two years. They wondered if the rules aren't a complete waste of time as Australia cannot enforce the rules in other countries.
These ineffective and wasteful laws are an example of “symbolic politics” on Labor’s part. It gives the impression they are active on an issue when they are not. The laws pander to hysteria and moral panics about access to internet for minors. It makes no cognisance that it is ultimately a parental responsibility for their children’s welfare and instead offers to cheaply assuage a guilt complex for not taking enough interest in their children’s affairs. The laws are also part of an ongoing battle between libertarianism and social conservatism.
But ultimately this is all about grubby dealmaking. By passing these new laws, Labor have one eye on conservative senator Steve Fielding whose support they will need to pass legislation in the senate post June 2008. The Family First senator also has his eye on Labor. Fielding, who has campaigned on ISP filtering, said he would be watching the government “like a hawk” on this issue. No doubt Labor will be wanting its pound of flesh on other big ticket items as a quid pro quo. In their minds, compromising freedom of expression on the internet is a small price to pay for getting an agenda through parliament.