Internet: the final frontier?

Issue 

While governments worldwide push neoliberal policies including "free" markets, "free" trade (and lately "free" trillion dollar pay-outs to prop up businesses), new legislation from the Australian federal government indicates it does not want such freedoms for the population when it comes to what they may view on the internet.

The Labor government's "clean feed", or mandatory internet filtering, is planned to enter its "live" pilot test phase some time before December 24. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are being asked to voluntarily take part in the pilot.

The proposed changes require all ISPs to provide a filter aimed at blocking all users from viewing sites from a pre-determined "blacklist" monitored by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

The censorship plans are being championed by telecommunications minister Stephen Conroy, who coined a phrase reminiscent of George Bush's infamous "you're with us or with the terrorists". "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree", Conroy said, according to the January 1 Sydney Morning Herald.

While the government has attempted to link child pornography with internet freedoms, Conroy admitted in parliament that the pilot filtering will test "against the ACMA blacklist of prohibited internet content, which is mostly child pornography, as well as filtering of other unwanted content".

What exactly is this other unwanted material? Euthanasia and anorexia have been discussed as possible topics to make the "other unwanted content" category.

Electronic Frontiers of Australia (EFA), which is campaigning against the proposal, notes that prohibited content could include: X-rated pornography; violence; instruction in crime, drug use, or terrorism, and any R-rated content that doesn't have a restricted access system for children.

The list of "blacklisted" sites is kept secret by modifications to the Freedom of Information Act, meaning internet users won't know which sites are "banned".

Many technical options exist for easily getting around the censorship for those determined to. Such solutions have been used in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where web browsing is tightly filtered and monitored. Ironically, the Australian government accuses these countries of preventing freedom of speech.

Additionally, mandatory censorship slows down internet speed and is not accurate in targeting "illegitimate sites". Even the government's own report, Closed environment testing of ISP-level internet content filters, showed all filters reduced broadband speed, in two cases the reduction was in excess of 75%. The findings also indicated that 2-15% of restricted material was not filtered, while the filters wrongly blocked 2-8% of non-restricted material.

Already, optional content filters are available to those that desire them. The danger is the mandatory nature of the new proposal, and who decides what is "acceptable".

A serious concern is the level it will be taken to. If this initial censorship is allowed, then it makes the next level that much easier to bring in. Contrasting political and religious views and critical media may end up "restricted".

Internet activist group GetUp is running a campaign against internet censorship, with a petition on its website gaining 22,000 signatures in one day — a record in recent history. The Greens and the Coalition say they oppose the plan.

Rallies against the proposed censorship legislation are planned for December 13 (see calendar page 27 for details).

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