The proposed Australian government mandatory filter threatens to align the Australian internet regime with online environments policed by some of the world’s least democratic countries. If the ACMA blacklist informs the list of sites to be barred or filtered then this is additional cause for concern. The blacklist goes far beyond the blocking of illegal child pornography sites (as used by Germany and Italy), and the prohibition of illegal gambling sites (forbidden by Italy).

A mandatory filter based on such a broad range of content as the ACMA blacklist would place clear water between Australia and other liberal democracies.

A study of internet regulation in eight European and Scandinavian countries indicates that the overwhelming mechanism through which countries regulate their online environments is through voluntary codes of practice, which filter out restricted and specified illegal content, such as child p-rnography. There is a similar situation in Canada, where voluntary regulation developed around the principle of a “Cleanfeed” internet. Since 2006, this Canadian approach has followed the UK’s voluntary adoption of a similar strategy, begun by BT and other UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in 2004.

In the US, early attempts to filter the internet were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but in 2000 the Children’s Internet Protection Act was passed into law. This required all organisations that received federal funding and that catered for children — including  institutions such as schools and libraries — to filter their internet feed. It is left to the organisation to choose the filter software that works best for their purposes and the legislation has promoted the development of a market in relevant filtering products.

Closer to home, the New Zealand government concluded its public consultation on a proposed voluntary filtering system at the end of September 2009 and is considering its recommendations with a report expected early in 2010. However, the commitment to an engaged debate with ISPs and with the public is clear in the comments of Keith Manch, deputy secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs.

He commented in July 2009 that: “Joining the filtering program is voluntary and if any ISP subsequently is unhappy it will be able to withdraw. This is another way of ensuring that the department gets the filter right.”

Instituting a mandatory filter to achieve what almost all other Western democracies have managed voluntarily, and expanding the scope of material captured by that filter from child abuse material to broader categories of content, would place Australia in a category of its own for a Western democracy. Unfortunately, this approach is already tried and tested, but by very different sets of countries. Reporters Without Borders (RWB), for example, have a list of a dozen countries that they categorise as “enemies of the internet”, including Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam.

Australia is currently on the second tier list of countries that RWB classifies as “under surveillance”, since it is without a mandatory filter but there are government discussions about a mandatory filter. This list includes Bahrain, Eritrea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Zimbabwe. It is unclear as to whether implementing the proposals for a mandatory filter would “promote” Australia to becoming a fully fledged enemy of the internet.

The Open Net Initiative (ONI) is sponsored by Harvard, Toronto, Cambridge and Oxford universities and examines the relative freedom of the internet. They investigate practices around internet filtering adopted by a range of governments and regimes around the world. They judge Singapore to be a “selective filterer” of social content on the grounds that it blocks “only a small set of p-rnographic websites as a symbol of disapproval of their contents”. Jordan was judged to be a selective filterer of political content on the grounds that “Only, a US-based online newspaper often critical of Arab leaders, was found to be blocked”.

It is uncertain whether ONI would agree with the Australian courts that materials such as Join the Caravan can be legitimately forbidden by the Australian Refused Classification scheme, or if they would agree with the NSW Council for Civil Liberties that the publication has potential educational aspects. If the latter, then it is quite possible that ONI would judge an Australian internet filter based on the prohibited content and Refused Classification guidelines as also selectively filtered on political grounds.

Azerbaijan, Jordan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Thailand are all judged by ONI to selectively filter on political grounds, while Ethiopia, Singapore, South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan and Vietnam selectively filter on social grounds. Since 2008 when ONI issued its print volume Refused Classification, and 2009 when the website was most recently accessed by the author, two other countries have moved from selective filtering to substantial filtering of political content — Unites Arab Emirates and Yemen — while Bahrain has gone from being a selective filterer of social sites to a country that is a “pervasive” filterer of such sites. In that time frame no country has become more liberal.

Such environments are entirely at odds with the usual practice in liberal democracies where consensus and debate inform choice. Indeed, the history of family regulation of internet environments in Australia indicates that most parents choose to negotiate with their children about online activities and responsibilities and set nuanced rules that vary with the age and gender of the young people in their care.

The presumption is that the adults of these families would also like to be engaged in a discussion around informed consent with the regulators of the Australian internet. Australia is trumpeting its investment in the National Broadband Network as being world-leading. It would be a shame if this commitment went hand in hand with a dramatic reduction in social and political freedoms enjoyed by Australians online.

Lelia Green is Professor of Communications in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Edith Cowan University, Perth. She is author of The Internet: An Introduction to New Media (Berg, forthcoming 2010) and Technoculture: from alphabet to cybers-x, (Allen & Unwin 2002) as well as many journal articles, papers and chapters on technology and social change. Green is a co-investigator in the Risk and Representation project of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation examining young people’s engagement with digital culture, and co-author with Professors Catharine Lumby and John Hartley of Untangling the net: The scope of content caught by mandatory internet filtering.

Peter Fray

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