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Australian Internet censorship

By Sven in Op-Ed
Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 12:21:02 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has published their submission to the Australian government regarding Australia's Internet censorship policies. The findings make interesting reading. Perhaps one positive outcome of the review is that it shows that the censorship regime is largely ineffective, so it's unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on Australian Internet users.

The Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) is responsible for investigating complaints about inappropriate Internet content. When the ABA receive a complaint that they believe is legitimate, they refer the offending website or newsgroup article to the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). The OFLC then rates the item following Australian movie classification guidelines [pdf]. A nice summary of the possible ratings is available at movie-ratings.net for those who don't wish to read about them in detail. Items rated G, PG, M, or MA are permitted to remain on the Internet without government intervention. Items rated R, X, or RC (refused classification) are deemed to warrant further action.

The problem here is that the majority of these items would be permitted if they were found in some other medium. As an adult, I can go to my local cinema and watch an R rated movie, or go on the Internet and order an X-rated video or DVD from Canberra. Yet if the content is found on the Internet, the government tries to stop me from accessing it. The action against the offending content varies, depending on the source.

For websites hosted within Australia, the ABA issues a take-down notice to the hosting ISP. However, due to the ABA's refusal to reveal the list of banned sites, it is not possible to determine whether the content is actually removed. The government has gone so far as to propose amendments to freedom of information laws to exempt information about Internet censorship. The EFA is dubious, and believes that the refusal of the ABA to reveal the list indicates that many of the sites may not have been taken down.

Websites hosted outside Australia are an entirely different matter. Naturally, the ABA has no jurisdiction over what is hosted in other countries. Instead, they provide a list of banned URLs to Australian ISPs, who are then responsible for providing blocking software to Internet users who request it, usually for an additional fee. Therefore, the prohibition of overseas sites only affects the very small proportion of Internet users who request that they be blocked from accessing it.

Perhaps the most laughable aspect of the policy is the ABA's treatment of prohibited USENET news articles. For these items, the ABA simply issues a take-down notice to the complainant's ISP. While this (if implemented) ensures that the complainant is no longer able to view the material, it does nothing for the users of Australia's other approximately 650 ISPs and is therefore completely ineffective.

The EFA report reveals that in the year until June 2001, only 13% of the material prohibited by the ABA was Australian websites over which the ABA can take effective action, a total of around 100 pages. The remainder of the prohibited content was made up of newsgroup articles and overseas websites over which the ABA has very limited control. So while the government continues to spread propaganda about the effectiveness of their censorship regime, the average Aussie can continue to download whatever they please.

Perhaps this is the best outcome for everyone concerned. The government certainly seems happy about the results, proudly reporting in their propaganda that they are helping all Australian families reap the benefits of the information economy without fear of confronting illegal or offensive material. Those who want access to filtering software can do so for reduced cost, since ISPs must provide the software at cost price. And for the remainder of Australian Internet users, the policy is so ineffective that the vast majority would be blissfully unaware of its existence.


Voxel dot net
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Related Links
o Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA)
o The findings
o Australian movie classification guidelines
o movie-rati ngs.net
o propose amendments to freedom of information laws
o spread propaganda
o Also by Sven

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Australian Internet censorship | 35 comments (29 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Larger issues trouble me (3.66 / 6) (#7)
by coljac on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 12:48:19 PM EST

Interesting summary of the state of affairs. Thanks.

As an Australian living in the USA, though, something about this is very worrying to me. Sure, Australia is lucky that the censorship scheme they chose was ludicrously unworkable. But it sets such a worrying precedent. Here in the USA, where puritanism/religious mania/general wowserism reaches fever pitch amongst certain segments of the population, such censorship would probably be very popular. Thankfully, it would also be blatantly unconstitutional and so has not occurred.

On the other hand, Australia's lack of solid constitutional protection for freedom of speech leaves us at the mercy of the government and prevailing public opinion. I'm worried that in the future, these things will align again; perhaps, say, motivated by security fears sparked by terrorism (look at how much freedom the Americans will consider giving up for security) and this sort of censorship will set a nice precedent that can be easily expanded.

So while I'm grateful that it's basically useless as a means to restrict Australians from viewing content of their choice, I think it was an evil thing the day the government's powers of censorship were extended to this realm.

A much better law in my view would have been one involving corporal punishment for spammers - but that's another story.


Whether or not life is discovered there I think Jupiter should be declared an enemy planet. - Jack Handey

corporal punishment for spammers? (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by Shren on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 04:43:12 PM EST

A much better law in my view would have been one involving corporal punishment for spammers - but that's another story.

Oh, please don't start. I'm tired of hearing about this particular demand for legislation. As soon as you let the government put people away for bulk spam email, they'll be coming up with creative definitions of what spam is, and they'll be misusing spam laws the same way they misuse asset forfiture laws. Give the government an inch (spam laws) and they'll take a mile (shut down all bulk email communication they don't like).

[ Parent ]

Corporal Punishment (3.00 / 1) (#12)
by hershmire on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 05:21:41 PM EST

Corporal punishment refers to punishment inflicted on the body, or namely, physical beatings.

I would assume that if the comment's author lived in Singapore, then this would be a serious statement. However, since the commenter said he was an "Australian living in the USA", then I would construe that statement as a joke, unless Australia's changed some rules since I've been there.

YIAAAAIPOD (Yes, I am an Aussie, and it's pronounced Ozzy, dammit)
FIXME: Insert quote about procrastination
[ Parent ]
Corporal Punishment (1.00 / 1) (#13)
by Shren on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 05:45:14 PM EST

I know that. I'm just tired of the sentiment.

[ Parent ]

Re: Corporal Punishment (3.50 / 2) (#14)
by dizzentive on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 05:52:13 PM EST

I don't think it was a joke.  They should all be stripped naked, beated with sticks, sliced with razorblades and then salted and hung out to dry in the desert.  Just my personal opinion.

I have a theory as well, I don't think that the people that run these bulk email ventures really use the Internet at all.  Or at least not their email.  "Bah, besides, who needs email anyway.  All I ever get is spam."  I wooonder why...

[ Parent ]

666 words in story,,, (1.33 / 9) (#8)
by kejace on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 02:10:38 PM EST

.. coincident? :P

What about legitimate disidents? (4.00 / 7) (#9)
by snowcold on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 02:16:41 PM EST

The overall feeling that this article tries to transmit is that we shouldn't worry about the censorship of the government because, as anything the government does, it is poorly planned and even more poorly enforced.

Well folks, that's a huge mistake.

Giving more power to those who wield it now is not going to solve anything. If you feel you freedom is going away it's because it is. And it is not small dissidents against the system like myself who are taking it away from you, it's the big, ugly system in which we live who is stoling not only our freedom but our values and our communities.

Whenever someone tries to ram this dammed lie that we shouldn't care about the mighty and powerful down my throat I feel the urge to repeat: freedom, use it or lose it.

Freedom is not free; free men are not equal; and equal men are not free.

A HA.. (2.00 / 9) (#10)
by ThreadSafe on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 04:12:12 PM EST

no more sheep fucking porn for you filthy Australian barstards.

Make a clone of me. And fucking listen to it! - Faik

An an Australia (1.83 / 6) (#15)
by ComradeFork on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 06:07:31 PM EST

I really don't care what happens. Even if the censorship was actually enforced, I don't see the problem.

"Oh, but Fork, you can't trust the Government! They will just take away your guns, your liberties, blah blah blah constitution blah blah free speech blah blah"

Paranoid Sci-Fi fans perhaps have more reason to worry, but I'm more worried about this annoying scratch I have on my desk.

Where then, do you draw the line? (none / 0) (#25)
by tin the fatty on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 12:14:50 AM EST


[ Parent ]
The line? (1.00 / 1) (#27)
by ComradeFork on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 02:00:00 AM EST

I do not draw it, as I am not a MP.

If they draw it wrongly, they get voted off. (Except they will not, as the unwashed masses will vote practically randomly)

Anyway, censorship is fine by me.

[ Parent ]

Free speech etc. (4.00 / 3) (#16)
by The Timelord on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 07:44:20 PM EST

Although it's great that this censorship thing is so icomepetently implemented that it doesn't work it does raise a very important issue for Australia: The lack of protection for free speech and other rights in our constitution.

I remember a little while ago the issue of a Bill of Rights for Aust. was raised in the papers. However it was criticised for being 'too American' and for possibly leading to huge numbers of frivolous law suits (as if we don't have that already).

We shouldn't have to rely on the government's incompetence when it comes to the Internet/Computers to protect us from censorship.

Bill of Rights (5.00 / 1) (#21)
by Pseudonym on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 11:19:39 PM EST

The problems with a bill of rights were noted by the framers of the US Constitution and are painfully obvious today. They are twofold: The first is that some "rights" become anachronistic (e.g. the third amendment, which prevents the US millitary from billeting soldiers in your house without your consent). The second is that new "rights", not envisaged at the time of the bill of rights, become important later (e.g. the right to privacy, the right to fair use of copyrighted materials and so on). (This was one of the main objections to putting a bill of rights in the Australian constitution at the time. I don't recall anyone seriously objecting that it was "too American".)

The former objection can be overcome using, for example, the Canadian model. If the government wants a piece of legislation to override something in the Bill of Rights, they can, but they must do it explicitly (i.e. explicitly state "this law overrides article X from the Bill of Rights"). If you think about the political sensitivity of including such a clause, this is a very clever solution.

The latter is harder, and I'm not sure if there is a good solution.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Rights and Tyranny (none / 0) (#30)
by cam on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 07:32:23 AM EST

The second is that new "rights",

Unfortunately the modern terminology for 'rights' has become too broad. The Bill of Rights represents basic protections from tyranny. The founding fathers added the amendments to ensure Americans would have protection from governmental tyranny unlike what they had gone through with the King Of England. Supposed rights like right to privacy and right to copyrighted materials arent truly rights. Neither are protections from tryanny against a humans freedom. Neither are guarantee's against the arbitary coercion and removal of a humans innate freedom or liberty.

Even with those protections the US system is imperfect. As an Australian living in the US, I am subject to the PATRIOT Act which discriminates liberty on the basis of citizenship. The Bill of Rights are written in such a manner that any person under that governments jursidiction is protected by the Bill of Rights from governmental tyranny. The PATRIOT Act contradicts that. It assumes that people born in one place are freer than another. All humans are born with complete freedom, it is only liberty under a political and social system which limits a humans ability to express that complete freedom. In other words, anyone standing on the same place on the planet, no matter where they are and where they were born should have the same liberty. Sadly this currently isnt true.
Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic
[ Parent ]

Doesn't mean it can't work (none / 0) (#31)
by The Timelord on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 08:14:24 AM EST

If you look at the US Bill of Rights you'll see that although there are anachronisms most of the stuff is still relevant today, for example:

"In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law"

If you got rid of the bit about $20 the statement becomes far more generic and relevant to modern times. If done properly it should be possible to write a bill of rights that only includes general statements that aren't specific to the present time nor contain obvious anachronisms such as dollar amounts.

If any anachronisms did get in then something similar to the Canadian model could be used to overwrite them when necessary.

As for adding new rights to the Bill it would be a simple matter of holding a referendum. I would think that this would be safer and less controversial than removing old rights because people would be inclined to see taking away rights as equal to state oppression.

Of course this system still has problems, however I think it would be a huge improvement over the current, very flimsy, system which seems to consist of a mish-mash of old laws and legal precendents.

[ Parent ]

ACT Bill of Rights (5.00 / 1) (#23)
by avocadia on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 11:52:42 PM EST

The ACT government is currently considering a Bill of Rights that would presumably only be applicable in Canberra and Yass. They are taking public response to the idea, and have more information on their website.

[ Parent ]
NetAlert conference (none / 0) (#34)
by alexgp on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 11:30:08 PM EST

Hello avocadia,

If you're anywhere near the ACT, would you be interested in coming along to the NetAlert conference and demanding a national Bill of Digital Rights for Australia?

Here's some info on the idea

[ Parent ]

we have some protection ... (none / 0) (#26)
by blaed on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 12:52:42 AM EST

Although it's great that this censorship thing is so icomepetently implemented that it doesn't work it does raise a very important issue for Australia: The lack of protection for free speech and other rights in our constitution.
Actually, unless something has changed, the High Court has found that we have an implied freedom of political speech in the Australian Consitution. I believe this was actually even used as a defence against a defamation suit some time ago. The extent of this protection isn't clear cut though.

Really the entire internet censorship thing was, and is a farce. The government needed an independant senators vote for some other legislation, it looked like they were doing something even though basically anyone with a clue told them it wasn't going to work, and now the ABA is hiding the details, which must thrill the government.

I don't see this government backing down and repealling the legislation, and I doubt Labor sees it as important enough to take a gamble on (removing the legislation that protects little jimmy from porn? Even with statistics and reports like the EFA that would be a gamble)

The "best" we could hope for is for the legislation to be watered down further IMHO, at least in the "short" term.

[ Parent ]

Implied Right of Political Free Speech (none / 0) (#28)
by Kaos on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 03:40:49 AM EST

I think that the case that led to the judgement was where one of the major political parties wanted to stop the ban on political advertising in the broadcast media in the last few days before election day.

Forgive me for being cynical but I'd bet the Advertising Companies and Broadcast media who had most to gain (in advertising revenue) funded the case, taking things to the High Court isn't cheap, but as they say, Justice: you get what you pay for.

Be wary of strong drink, it can make you shoot at tax collectors and miss.
[ Parent ]

Free Speech in Australia (3.33 / 3) (#17)
by pr0spero on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 08:09:46 PM EST

I find that a few people here have mistakenly assumed that Australia has a Constitusion simillar to the USA. This is infact NOT TRUE. There is NO legal protection for 'freedom of speech' in australia. The government can and HAS on occasion pulled stories from the nightly news with 10 seconds warning.

Take heart in the fact that the Internet was designed to be de-centralised and to route-around damaged areas. Filters and firewalls are considered 'damage' and there is just about allways a way around them.

Pulling stories? Pull the other one! (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by docvin on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 10:07:38 PM EST

Do you have any references on that "pulling stories from the nightly news with 10 seconds warning" thing? I live in Australia and I've never heard about that ever happening.

I think that in practice, despite the lack of any actual constitutional protection, free speech in Australia isn't really much worse off than it is in the US.

[ Parent ]

Link To Australian Constitution (5.00 / 1) (#19)
by cam on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 10:15:36 PM EST

I find that a few people here have mistakenly assumed that Australia has a Constitusion simillar to the USA.

The Australian Constitution

Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic
[ Parent ]

I think he means (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by infesticon on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 11:59:36 PM EST

 assumed that Australia has a (Constitusion simillar to the USA).

rather than

 assumed that (Australia has a Constitusion) simillar to the USA.

`Five Principles of Service' `1. We uphold the right to be racist, bigoted and intolerant towards people who are different from ourselves... We
[ Parent ]

I posted the link so (none / 0) (#29)
by cam on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 07:01:05 AM EST

.. anyone scanning it could quickly see there is nothing like the US Amendments known as the Bill of Rights. Sorry should have expressed that better in the post. I agree with original post.

Like common law and "no man is above the law" was Britains gift to liberty, I think the Bill of Rights or protections from Government are the United States gift to liberty. Any modern system should have encoded in their consitutions protections agianst government suppressing speech, habeous corpeus and arbitary searches and seizures. It should also pertain to anyone that is under that governments jurisdiction, not just those that are born in that country. Liberty should be the same everywhere.

Australia's system has been called the Washminster mutation as it borrowed from the Westminster and Washington systems, unfortunately Australia payed lip service to the King of England as the executive and subsequently neutered the executive politically ( for the same reasons the Brits and Canadians did ). The Governer General is ceremonial but there are a couple of weird loopholes like the reserve powers which popped up with Whitlam ( Game used similar powers to remove Lang in the 1930's at the State level as well ).

The legislative is too powerful in Australia, there should be incumbancy legislation to make PM's retire after two terms. I think the position of Prime Minister should be formalised in the Constitution and then term limit them. The clutches at power PM's have made, like Keating and Howard are pretty repulsive. If they are going to behave like an executive they should be term limited. House of Representatives and Senate should also be term limited as well. Too many career politicians.

Australia's system has it's flaws because it tried to remain a dominion self-governing nation. They should have broken from Britain, I doubt if the nation was mature enough then, they still should have, it would have been better for all Australians a century later. Now we have relics of an inferior political system in our constitution that are proving difficult to get rid of.

I think Australia's Constitution would be improved by amendments that limited governments power further in respect to basic freedoms that should not be transgressed.

Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic
[ Parent ]

the impact (none / 0) (#20)
by danny on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 11:14:08 PM EST

it's unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on Australian Internet users

While it's certainly true that the Federal censorship scheme won't have any effect on Australian Internet users collectively, it has the potential to screw up the lives of some individuals and small businesses. Anyone hosting content in Australia - even mild stuff that might merely be R-rated - is potentially subject to a takedown notice, failure to comply with which by 5pm the following working day could result in large fines. (Just as the law applies the film classification system to all Internet content, it imposes fines appropriate for cinema chains.)

This may not be a big risk - unless a competitor or personal enemy is looking for a chance to hurt you - but it's still a downside to hosting content in Australia.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

More Than A Chance (none / 0) (#35)
by dozee on Sun Nov 17, 2002 at 02:53:55 AM EST

I actually had to submit a disk containing a large selection of the content and was told that the risk of a takedown notice was so near enough a certain thing that they where declining my business. I went to the other side of the pond with my site and had no problems at all, and at a quarter of the price. Now I do all my hosting with American companies

[ Parent ]
They dont provide URLs... (5.00 / 2) (#22)
by ghostrider1 on Tue Nov 12, 2002 at 11:39:45 PM EST

Instead, they provide a list of banned URLs to Australian ISPs

Actually, they dont. In Feb 2000, EFA made a Freedom of Information Act claim on the ABA. The ABA refused, EFA appealed their refusal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The AAT decision which was handed down in June 2002 upheld the ABA's refusal to supply identifying information about items of Internet content which had been complained about, even content which had been found not to be prohibited. This only applied to the identifying information itself, however. ie if a document contained a URL to prohibited information, a copy of the document would be provided but the URL would be blacked out.

Subsequently, the government has tabled legislation which would have the effect of providing a blanket exemption from the FOI act to any document containing identifying information about prohibited or potentially prohibited Internet content. This means that they could refuse to provide an entire document if it contained one prohibited or potentially prohibited URL.

The only people which the ABA provides banned URLs to are filtering software manufacturers, presumably so they can be added to the black-list of their product.

indymedia (none / 0) (#32)
by turmeric on Wed Nov 13, 2002 at 12:50:35 PM EST

i just wanted to let all you hitler youth that the australian government recently tried to shutdown indymedia australia, claiming that it was 'being used to organize violent protests'. more info at melbourne.indymedia.org or just indymedia.org and click on links to aussie indymedias. or rant and rave about the stupidity of WTO protestors, you white collar cubicle house-slave

Yes, it's about to get worse, so here's a solution (none / 0) (#33)
by alexgp on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 08:35:53 PM EST

Yes, the Australian police ministers have agreed at a recent meeting to ban so-called violent protest websites. That means this site could be banned if a single person posted KILL ALL THE PIGS for instance.

And the Australian Government's body for propagandising about the censorship system is having a conference in Canberra soon.

Perhaps the Government is gearing up for some more net censorship.

But I saw it coming, which is why I got a proposal for a Bill of Digital Rights passed by the ACT Australian Labor Party conference, and the Australian Young Labor conference. If anyone is interested in pushing this idea at the conference (or outside the conference, it costs A$500 to get in), please post a comment below.

It reads:

Bill of Digital Rights and Responsibilities

AYL recognises that global electronic communications have created a defacto standard for free speech online. AYL further recognises that it is not a coincidence that the most dynamic and enduring societies and economies are those that foster freedom of expression.

Recent and proposed legislation relating to digital communications has acted to erode legal certainties and rights. This trend should be decisively reversed.

AYL calls upon the FPLP, once in Government, to commence public debate on a Bill of Digital Rights and Responsibilities, to be legislated using the Commonwealth's electronic communications powers under the Constitution.

Such a Bill would include:

  • A recognition that when communicating online there is the responsibility to not racially vilify or otherwise contravene the Commonwealth Racial Hatred Act or other Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination legislation.
  • A less restrictive national definition of defamation, over-riding laws of the states and territories. The defamation laws would provide:
    • Freedom for non-malicious speech acts concerning corporations
    • Freedom for non-malicious speech acts concerning matters of public interest
    • That in the absence of malice no general damages be awarded. The burden of proving malice would be with the complainant.
  • A right to not be criminally prosecuted for any speech act made digitally that is of a purely expressive nature, with well-defined non-trivial exceptions. Also, a right to publish those speech acts on or by means of computers within Australia.
  • Some guarantee of the opportunity for each Australian not just to access Digital information, but to publish it. The information super-highway must not be one-way: barriers to entry must be lowered as much as possible for the Australian with an idea on a small budget.
  • A right to fair use of all digital intellectual property, restoring the original intent of copyright law.
  • A right to not have substantive personal information transmitted from one's personal computer without consent.
  • A right to use communications technology provided by an employer or educational institution for non-work or non-study purposes to a limited extent.

There is also this article I wrote about the Bill.

[ Parent ]

Australian Internet censorship | 35 comments (29 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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