The silent sen­tinel

Cen­sor­ship will make a quiet en­trance on the web in Aus­tralia next month, writes Jen­nifer Dud­ley-Ni­chol­son

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Gadgets -

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.

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