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For several years now Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Communications Minister, has been waging war against the evils of the Internet with his proposed net filtering legislation aimed at forcing Australian ISPs to censor the web. As you may expect, he has come up against a significant amount of opposition from ISPs, freedom of speech advocates, the industry, politicians and the like.

Elsa Chen, General Manager

Elsa Chen, General Manager

Possibly most damning of all is the latest report out of Australia which brands the proposed legislation as “politically toxic”. This is not good news for Mr Conroy as he plans to introduce this highly controversial Bill before the next General Election in October.

So what’s wrong with the Great Aussie Firewall?

The ‘Great Aussie Firewall’, as it has been nicknamed, was originally proposed and positioned as a method of tackling child pornography on the Internet and was expected to operate in a similar way to our own IWF watch list, with ISPs blocking access to potentially harmful or offensive sites. Nothing wrong with that you may argue. However, there are two significant differences between the Aussie Firewall and our own IWF list. Firstly, our IWF list is not mandatory or state run and secondly, the scope of the Australian filter is far more wide reaching. This is the real concern for many opposing the Bill. The Australian filter is based on the RC Content (Refused Classification) list which is compiled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Opponents to the proposed Bill state that only one third of the list is actually made up of child abuse content. The rest, according to the ACMA, includes bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. However its opponents insist that the list extends beyond these.

Google has become known as a vocal opponent of the filter. Google Australia’s Head of Policy, Iarla Flynn, stated: “The scope of RC is simply too broad and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.”

She added: “RC includes the grey realms of material instructing in any crime from graffiti to politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia, and exposing these topics to public debate is vital for democracy…This type of content may be unpleasant and unpalatable but we believe that government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate of controversial issues.”

Mr Conroy undoubtedly did himself no favours on this issue when he allegedly announced his support of Google’s original compliance to China’s state run Internet censorship.  Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party expressed concern over Mr Conroy’s statements that he admired Google’s role in blocking content in countries such as China and Thailand, adding: “First he [Stephen Conroy] tells us that it is only Refused Classification  material that will be blocked and only via a complaint driven scheme. Now he is discussing getting Google to block search requests for what might be considered RC material.” It’s easy to see why concern is mounting over the scope of the filter.

Whilst Mr Conroy may liken his proposed filtering scheme to that of the UK’s IWF, many of his critics are likening it much closer to China’s state run censorship, which we have covered in previous opinion articles (Entanet Opinion: Google flees Great Firewall of China).

Whilst we applaud Mr Conroy’s initial passion for attempting to stamp out the hideous wrongs of the Internet such as child pornography, we too have concerns over the final scope of the proposed filter and its actual effectiveness.

Even if the filter was restricted to the agreed scope of child pornography and the like, similar to the UK’s IWF, its effectiveness would come under scrutiny. Whilst many advocates of such schemes insist that by blocking such content accidental exposure is significantly reduced which in turn reduces the number of new offenders, the more determined and tech savvy offenders will be able to circumnavigate such filters. They offer little protection against those that are the most persistent and of most concern.

However, the reality is that the filter is not restricted to blocking just child pornography and is in fact more wide reaching. Whilst Mr Conroy’s current scope is worrying it could be even more concerning once a precedent is set, making it even easier for future Governments to expand the scope further. Australia could easily end up in a similar position to China.

Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding the costs involved in implementing such measures and the effect on performance. It’s expected that the ISPs will bear the costs, probably resulting in an increase in price for consumers; while the actual effect of every website needing to be checked by the filters will likely slow down the user’s experience (by willis). So is it really worth all of this when the real bad guys will still circumnavigate the filter anyway?

Is it the beginning of the end?

With support apparently dwindling fast, time running out and opposition growing (even from within his own party) – it’s surely time to ask…is this the beginning of the end for the Great Aussie Firewall? At the very least Mr Conroy’s timing certainly isn’t great, but then we thought that about our own DEB (Digital Economy Bill) and look what happened there! That managed to make it through the pre-election wash-up – maybe the Great Aussie Filter will have the same success. We will just have to wait and see!

Have your say!

We have discussed our view on this issue but what do you think? Do you agree that the proposed Bill is concerning or do you agree with Mr Conroy and believe it will succeed in making the Internet safer? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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