The silent sentinel
Censorship will make a quiet entrance on the web in Australia next month, writes Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson
AUSTRALIA will next month become one of the few democratic nations to censor the worldwide web. But the censorship will not be overseen, legislated or even enforced by the Federal Government.
More than 500 websites will instead be blocked voluntarily by two of the country’s largest internet service providers and two smaller firms, in a move that will affect most Australian internet users.
The voluntary filter — an interim move before the Gillard Government reintroduces mandatory internet filter legislation next year — will only deal with child-abuse websites and not all ‘‘ refused classification’’ material.
Some law experts are celebrating the introduction of the voluntary filter, calling it a ‘‘ public service’’.
But free speech and internet experts have questioned the censorship plan, demanding details about the sites to be banned and labelling it a ‘‘ cosmetic’’ approach that will only offer users ‘‘ a false sense of security’’.
The plan to have internet service providers voluntarily block websites from July was proposed by the Government last year, after its larger censorship plan was postponed, pending a classifications review.
Funding of $9.8 million was set aside to assist internet providers in blocking ‘‘ refused classification’’ material for users on a commercial basis, but the Federal Government last month dropped $9.6 million from this scheme, citing ‘‘ limited interest in the grants’’ from the industry.
Telstra, Optus and Primus committed to blocking childabuse websites only and More than 500 websites can be blocked voluntarily by internet service providers spokesmen from Telstra and Optus tell Switched On the ban will begin soon.
A Telstra spokesman says the company is continuing work ‘‘ to implement our voluntary commitment of last year’’, while an Optus spokesman says the company will share ‘‘ more information on this in the coming weeks’’.
Two small carriers, Webshield and ItExtreme, have also committed to blocking the sites.
Those website addresses will consist of more than 500 from the Australian Communi- cations and Media Authority’s blacklist, a spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says. Other lists have been supplied by ‘‘ outside’’ groups.
‘‘ The ACMA will compile and manage a list of URLs of child-abuse content that will include the appropriate subsection of the ACMA blacklist as well as child-abuse URLs that are provided by international organisations,’’ the spokesman says. The introduction of the internet filter will make Australia one of the few world democracies to censor the worldwide web.
A similar scheme was introduced in the UK by British Telecom in 2006, blocking sites decreed offensive or potentially illegal by the Internet Watch Foundation.
But the plan fell into controversy in 2008 when the IWF blacklisted a Wikipedia entry on a band called Scorpions, calling one of the band’s album covers ‘‘ potentially illegal’’.
UTS Communications Law Centre director Michael Fraser admits any internet filter will leave ‘‘ opinions sharply divided’’, but blocking childabuse URLs should be supported.
‘‘ It’s a very healthy sign that these large companies have acted responsibly,’’ Fraser says.
But there should be ‘‘ transparency about the process’’ and a ‘‘ very general description’’ of why these URLs are being blocked should be available to the public. ‘‘ There should also be the ability to appeal against a ruling if your site is blocked,’’ he says.
The lack of detail about the scheme is also a concern for Electronic Frontiers Association board member Colin Jacobs, who questions who will decide what is banned.