The government has not abandoned its dangerous plan to filter online traffic, even though this will be hard to get parliamentary approval.
A harsh filtering system
After a year of tests in cooperation with Australian Internet service providers, telecommunications minister Stephen Conroy said in December 2009 the government would seek parliamentary approval for mandatory filtering of "inappropriate" websites. Blocking access to a website would BE authorised not by a court but by a government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
The ACMA is already empowered to issue “take down” notices to Internet Service Providers under the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992. It maintains a “blacklist” of banned sites without transparent processes or criteria for the bans.
The filtering would target websites with “refused classification” (RC) content, a category already applied to mainstream media, and would therefore apply to content unrelated to government efforts to combat child pornography, defamation or copyright, so creating a risk of overblocking. Topics such as aborigines, abortion, anorexia, or laws about the sale of marijuana might all be filtered, along with media reports or related medical information. The government says filtering would be 100% effective – a claim disputed by experts – but Wikileaks has revealed that the blacklist includes harmless sites such as YouTube links, poker games, gay networks, Wikipedia pages and Christian sites.
Several examples of censorship have appeared. Pages of Wikileaks content on the SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) news site were reportedly blocked, leading to a demonstration in Sydney by supporters of the Pirate Party.
All the country’s main ISPs (Telstra, Optus and Primus) are thought to have formally agreed to instal voluntary filters from July 2011. The government still hopes to introduce mandatory filtering, with the support of independent and Green members of parliament, but it does not yet have such backing.
An unpopular bill
Journalist Ben Grubb, of The Age newspaper, said in July 2010 the government censored 90% of an official account of a meeting about censorship with ISPs and business figures in March that year before releasing it to the media. Australian law allows full access to all government documents. Claudia Hernandez, of the attorney-general’s office, said releasing an uncensored version could have set off “premature unnecessary debate.” Deputy senate opposition leader George Brandis said the episode showed how “truly Orwellian” the government had become.
Minister Conroy has made debate very difficult by calling his critics child pornography advocates. A Fairfax Media poll of 20,000 Australians in December 2009 showed 96% strongly opposed to the bill. Internet firms, including Google and Yahoo, are against the measure and the U.S. government said in March 2010 it was concerned about the proposal, noting the importance of freedom of expression. Hundreds of Australian websites protested against the bill in a national “Internet Blackout” day in January 2010.