Simpsons Solicitors

The Australian Government Goes Forward with its Plan to Censor the Internet

December 18th 2009

The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, announced on Tuesday this week that the Australian Government would go ahead with its controversial plans to censor certain internet content. The package of proposed “cyber-safety” measures, which the Government intends to implement into law next year, prior to elections, includes the introduction of mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused Classification (RC)-rated content, grants to encourage ISPs to filter additional content, and an increased focus on education and awareness of online safety.

The measures, and particularly the mandatory requirement on ISPs to block RC-rated content, have not been free from criticism. Following the announcement, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby weighed in to the debate, comparing Australia to Burma and Iran, whose governments are “taking control of what people hear and what information they get.” Comparisons with China and the Chinese Government’s attempts to block internet content are also rife.

Of particular concern to critics of the Government is the lack of transparency with which RC content will be determined. The Government has repeatedly claimed that it only plans to protect children from web sites that feature content “unacceptable in any civilised society”. According to Communications Minister Conroy, “child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence and the detailed instruction of crime and drug use” are the types of matters that fall within this category. Further, the Minister claimed that the RC content list would be collated and maintained through a public complaints mechanism, which would be managed at arm’s length from the Government.

Opponents, however, are not convinced. They claim that filtering web content is inherently political and that governments, under the cover of law, could infringe on people’s legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association by blocking innocuous material relating to such divisive topics as euthanasia, sexuality, terrorism and the Holocaust. “This type of content may be unpleasant and unpalatable,” noted Google Australia’s head of policy, Iarla Flynn, “but we believe that government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate of controversial issues.” Scepticism is perhaps understandable, given that during trials of the Government’s scheme, a secret “blacklist” held by the communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, was leaked online. Much to the Government’s embarrassment, it contained many legitimate sites, such as online gambling sites, youtube links, regular pornography, fringe religious sites and even the website of a Queensland dentist.

Critics of Government have also argued that the mandatory requirement on ISPs to block certain content is unworkable and unwieldy: it will slow the internet down, they say, and those wanting to get their hands on offensive and illegal content will be able to do so in any event, such as via peer-to-peer software.

The Government, however, has denied this. The Communications Minister said on Tuesday that its pilot trial demonstrated that “blocking RC-rated material can be done with 100% accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed.”

Whether the Government will indeed go through with its measures before looming elections next year remains to be seen.

Simpsons regularly advises on classification regimes, freedom of speech, freedom of information (FOI) requests and their impact on content providers.  Please contact Adam Simpson for any enquiries.