Reporters Without Borders

Open letter to Australia's Prime Minister

Open letter to Australia’s Prime Minister

Published on Friday 18 December 2009.
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The Hon Kevin Michael Rudd Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600 Australia

Paris, 18 December 2009

Dear Prime Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends free expression worldwide, would like to share with you its concern about your government’s plan to introduce a mandatory Internet filtering system. While it is essential to combat child sex abuse, pursuing this draconian filtering project is not the solution. If Australia were to introduce systematic online content filtering, with a relatively broad definition of the content targeted, it would be joining an Internet censors club that includes such countries as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy announced on 15 December that, after a year of testing in partnership with Australian Internet service providers (ISPs), your government intended to introduce legislation imposing mandatory filtering of websites with pornographic, paedophile or particularly violent content.

Reporters Without Borders would like to draw your attention to the risks that this plan entails for freedom of expression.

Firstly, the decision to block access to an “inappropriate” website would be taken not by a judge but by a government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Such a procedure, without a court decision, does not satisfy the requirements of the rule of law. The ACMA classifies content secretly, compiling a website blacklist by means of unilateral and arbitrary administrative decision-making. Other procedures are being considered but none of them would involve a judge.

Secondly, the criteria that the proposed law would use are too vague. Filtering would be applied to all content considered “inappropriate,” a very slippery term that could be interpreted very differently by different people. In all probability, filtering would target “refused classification” (RC) sites, a category that is extremely controversial as it is being applied to content that is completely unrelated to efforts to combat child sex abuse and sexual violence, representing a dangerous censorship option. Subjects such as abortion, anorexia, aborigines and legislation on the sale of marijuana would all risk being filtered, as would media reports on these subjects.

The choice of filtering techniques has not been clearly defined. Would it be filtering by key-words, URL text or something else? And what about the ISPs that are supposed to carry out the filtering at the government’s request? Will they be blamed, will they be accused of complicity in child sex abuse if the filtering proves to be ineffective, as it almost certainly will?

Your government claims that the filtering will be 100 per cent effective but this is clearly impossible. Experts all over the world agree that no filtering system is effective at combating this kind of content. On the one hand, such a system filters sites that should not be affected (such as sites about the psychology of child sexuality or paedophile crime news). And on the other, it fails to filter targeted sites because their URLs contain key-words that are completely unrelated to their content, or because their content (photo and text) is registered under completely neutral terms. Furthermore, people who are determined to visit such sites will know how to avoid the filtering by, for example, using proxy servers or censorship circumvention software or both.

The Wikileaks website highlighted the limitations of such as system when it revealed that the ACMA blacklist of already banned websites contained many with nothing reprehensible in their content. According to Wikileaks, the blacklist included the Abortion TV website, some of the pages of Wikileaks itself, online poker sites, gay networks, sites dealing with euthanasia, Christian sites, a tour operator’s site and even a Queensland dentist’s site.

The US company Google has also voiced strong reservations. Google Australia’s head of policy, Iarla Flynn, said yesterday: “Moving to a mandatory ISP filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.”

As regards paedophilia, the most dangerous places on the Internet are websites offering chat and email services. So if this project were taken to its logical conclusion, access to sites such as Gmail, Yahoo and Skype would also have to be blocked, which would of course be impossible.

There are more effective ways to combat child pornography, including tracking cyber-criminals online (by means of cookies, IP address comparison, and so on), combined with police investigation into suspects and their online habits. Why did your government end the programme launched by the previous government, which made free filtering systems available to Australian families? This procedure had the merit of being adapted to individual needs and gave each home the possibility of shielding its children from porn.

A real national debate is needed on this subject but your communications minister, Stephen Conroy, made such a debate very difficult by branding his critics as supporters of child pornography. An opportunity was lost for stimulating a constructive exchange of ideas.

We also regret the lack of transparency displayed by your government as regards the tests carried out in recent months using procedures that have been kept secret. Your government paid some 300,000 Australian dollars to ISPs to finance the tests. Australian taxpayers have a right to be given detailed information about the results.

Finally, you must be aware that this initiative is a source of a concern for your compatriots. In a recent Fairfax Media poll of 20,000 people, 96 per cent were strongly opposed to such a mandatory Internet filtering system, while around 120,000 Australians have signed a petition against Internet censorship launched by the online activist group GetUp. The withdrawal of this proposal would therefore satisfy public opinion as well as prevent a democratic country from introducing a system that threatens freedom of expression.

I thank you in advance for the consideration you give to our recommendations.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard
Secretary-General

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