/ 30 March 2010

Australia under fire for internet filter plans

Australia came under fire from the United States (US) on Wednesday for its proposed internet filtering system, which, if implemented, would be the strictest of any democracy.

A US State Department official said that it had raised concerns with Australia over the plans, which are to be voted on by its Parliament.

“We remain committed to advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally,” Michael Tran, a State Department spokesperson told the Associated Press.

“We don’t discuss the details of specific diplomatic exchanges, but I can say that we have raised our concerns on this matter with Australian officials.”

Internet companies Google and Yahoo have already condemned the proposal as a heavy-handed measure that could restrict access to legal information.

Australia’s Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, said the filter would block access to sites that include child pornography, sexual violence and detailed instructions in crime or drug use. The list of banned sites could be updated based on public complaints. But he declined to say what the US had told Australia.

National censorship of overseas sites is becoming a trade issue. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, told the Guardian last week: “Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier.”

Many countries — including the United Kingdom — use filtering systems to limit access to outlawed material: in the UK the independent Internet Watch Foundation lists sites internet service providers (ISPs) are asked to block. The list is secret, and frequently updated. In Germany and Canada ISPs use similar blocking systems; in Italy gambling sites are blocked.

Infringing on free speech
But critics say that the Australian plan, which has been proposed repeatedly over the past five years, exceeds what is necessary and strays into matters of free speech.

“Our primary concern is that the scope of content to be filtered is too wide,” Google wrote in its submission to the Australian government, suggesting that the filter — which would be mandatory and state-controlled — would slow browsing speeds.

The company said it already had its own filter to block child pornography.

“Some limits, like child pornography, are obvious. No Australian wants that to be available and we agree,” Google said. “But moving to a mandatory ISP-level filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy-handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.”

Lucinda Barlow of Google Australia told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the proposal raised the possibility of banning politically and socially controversial material and went beyond filters used in Germany, Canada and Italy. Other critics say the filtering would put Australia in the same censorship league as China.

Yahoo said the filter would block many sites with controversial content such as euthanasia discussion forums and gay and lesbian forums that discuss sexual experiences. Yet it would not block peer-to-peer file-sharing, nor prevent predators approaching children in chat programmes or social networking sites.

Conroy said his department would take the comments from Google and Yahoo into consideration before sending a proposal to parliament later this year.

The US State Department sided with Google in its row with China over censorship when in January the search engine company complained that its systems had been hacked into in what it implied was an attack all but government-sanctioned by China. Last week Google moved its search systems to the Chinese island dependency of Hong Kong. The communist government responded by blocking searches from the mainland for forbidden topics such as the pro-democracy movement.

David Vaile of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales said China and Australia had markedly different approaches to restricting the internet.

“China’s filter is explicitly about discouraging access to and discussion of certain clearly political topics,” he said, while Australia’s filter would focus on specifically restricted material.

While some critics of Australia’s filter have said it puts the nation in the same censorship league as China, Vaile pointed out that the freedom-of-speech argument used by American companies follows a legal tradition that other countries do not necessarily share.

Yahoo and Google are accustomed to the protections of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and elevates it to a very high legal status, Vaile said.

“In Australia there is no equivalent,” he said. “There is no law that says you’ve got free speech. Having a lack of any legal protection for free speech for any effective restraint on [filters] is something that’s worrying.” —