The government’s nicely timed announcement last week that it will proceed next year with its internet censorship scheme has not only drawn widespread ire in Australia but has continued to raise eyebrows overseas. The filter has been covered around the world from the BBC to news outlets in Poland, Pakistan and even China. Unfortunately, it’s not a good look — despite any nuances the policy might have — that we’re gaining a reputation as the Iran of the South Pacific.

This has culminated with no less an organisation than Reporters Without Borders, a global watchdog of press freedom, writing to the Prime Minister, urging him to abandon the scheme. Given that one normally encounters RWB in association with jailed reporters and post-coup news blackouts, this development should be alarming to anyone concerned with our image as an open democracy in the world.

The letter, signed by RWB Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard, spelled out the organisation’s disquiet with the broad criteria and uncertain goals of the censorship plan. In particular, they felt the lack of judicial oversight was a key problem:

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.

The letter also expresses concern at the vagueness of the filtering criteria, worrying that “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.” Julliard notes the inherent unreliability of filtering and cites the leaked ACMA blacklist of earlier in the year as an example of how legitimate material can find its way onto a blacklist.

The minister’s earlier attempts to deflect criticism by implying filter opponents were all card-carrying members of the Child P-rnography Apologists League continue to backfire, with the letter noting that “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 p-rnography. An opportunity was lost for stimulating a constructive exchange of ideas.”

The rest of the world is watching and worrying because of the precedent this sets. If a democracy such as Australia can implement a program such as this in full view of the electorate, where might be next? What hope remains for those countries that do not have our transparent system of government? Citizens of other countries can already sense that their own governments will gleefully point to Australia’s filter when proposing their own clampdown. While nobody would say that Stephen Conroy set out to be at the vanguard of a new wave of global censorship, the consternation this program is causing should demonstrate our esteem overseas and how easy it would be to damage.

Peter Fray

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