Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Steven Conroy, yesterday announced plans to introduce legislation before the next General Election which would force ISPs in Australia to block black-listed websites which have been “refused classification”.
China is famous for its heavy web censorship and this move, which has already resulted in Conroy being awarded the dubious sounding “Internet Villain of the Year” award by The Internet Services Providers’ Association in the UK (ISPA), will doubtless see many others draw similar comparisons.
The technology, which was successfully trialed by the Australian Government recently, takes a black-list of websites – note that web applications, closed networks or file sharing services will not be screened whatsoever – and blocks them from ever reaching the requesting browser at ISP level. The pilot scheme proved this could be achieved successfully without any adverse effect on the speed of the web and other functionality for users requesting acceptable content.
While ministers suggest that the primary objective of the legislation is to prevent harmful illegal content, such as child pornography, from making its way onto Australian computer screens, their current blacklist suggests otherwise.
Despite the Government’s claims that they are seeking to prevent access to illegal content a recent report by Professors Catherine Lumby, Lelia Green and John Hartley revealed that “68 per cent of websites on the blacklist were blocked for reasons other than child pornography, including content that has been classified R18+, X18+, RC and unspecified.”
What this means is that adult users looking to access an entirely legal website that the Australian Government had classified as R18+ would be blocked. Moreover, the very fact that such a high percentage of blacklisted websites do not, in fact, contain illegal material may suggest that the Government has a different agenda here: the statistics suggest that much of the content to be blocked is that which is deemed unsuitable to minors, which is an entirely separate issue to the question of legality.
It is at this point that comparisons can be made to the film and television world. Content unsuitable for minors on television is displayed at a time deemed appropriate. Films with an 18+ classification are labeled as such and may not be sold to minors in many countries. The question of whether or not minors are able or allowed to view such films or television shows usually falls to parental discretion. The same could and perhaps should also be true of the internet: parents can monitor the online activity of their children, and install their own filters to block out objectionable content.
When a Government makes such a move, it risks being labeled paternalistic or, more strongly, oppressive, as many have labeled the regime in China for, among other things, its censorship laws.
The issue of “false positives” is another problem with this technology and its “blacklist” system: many opponents suggest that websites such as those about drug risk minimisation, homosexual safe sex guidance websites and those about classical literature might also be filtered out due to some references which might be deemed “unclassified”.
Another key criticism leveled at the scheme is that it does not provide for the future: it assumes that website via web-browser is the only way to view content online. It is not. Many users stream content direct, whether with a web browser through websites such as YouTube or without, through some direct web application other than a browser. The Australian blacklist system does not deal with this issue. It must be assumed likely that those seeking to propagate illegal material online will switch to such technologies in order to avoid filtering of their content. When this is considered, the purported aims of this legislation appear to be unachievable.
It could also be seen that this legislation might well be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to Australian web censorship. Yesterday’s announced legislation, were it passed, might simply open the floodgates for further amendments dealing with emergent and new technologies as they become available, in which case, Australians could find more of their previously legal online activity inhibited than ever.
Whether or not there is real desire for this technology within the Australian public will surely decide its future, and this depends upon what the aims of the legislation are perceived to be. Naturally, most Australians would wish to end child pornography, but the 68% of websites on the blacklist which have nothing to do with child pornography would indicate that this is not the primary function of the technology as it has been applied to date. In which case, there clearly needs to be further examination of the motivation behind this move to classify the Australian view of the world wide web.
If Australia does pass this legislation under the premise that is is seeking to protect its citizens from illegal activity and child pornography, care must be taken to insure that is all they achieve. Otherwise, the Australian Government appears in serious danger of throwing baby out with the bathwater, at the expense of the freedoms which her citizens currently enjoy.