Australia Poised to Begin Internet Filtering Program Unprecedented in Scope for Modern Democracy
By Debbie Rosenbaum
If the presumption that democracy depends upon the widest possible access to uncensored ideas, data, and opinions is true, then there is cause for great alarm as one of our nation’s closest democratic allies moves to drastically curtail this foundational freedom within its boarders. The Australian government will likely enact legislation that will make sweeping, compulsory Internet censorship a startling reality for all Australian citizens. Spearheaded by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, and backed by $44.2 million from the government’s $125.8 million Plan for Cyber-Safety budget, the planned filter (part of the NetAlert program) will render Internet access in Australia similar to that in Iran or China.
Australia’s Federal Government announced its ambitious web censorship plan in December 2007. The goal of the program is seemingly well intentioned: to shield children from violent and pornographic sites. (See the Australian government’s “Children Are Sacred” report, which discusses instances of child sexual abuse in the Northern Territories). The Family First Party, a relatively minor party with only one Member of Parliament, originally championed the filter, also known as the “clean feed” policy. The Party’s proposal has earned wider support from both Senator Conroy and the Rudd-Labor Government. Senator Conroy is expected to call for bids from Australian software makers, and reportedly wants to begin live trials by the end of the year.
A filtering system of this scale faces significant barriers that may undermine the initiative’s effectiveness. First, large numbers of citizens will potentially bypass the filter entirely using readily available software. The vocal and active communities that oppose Internet censorship will likely make anonymizer programs such as TOR readily available, which would allow users to easily bypass censorship filters. Surely, not every user will be sophisticated enough to implement such technology, but widely used peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent may provide another pathway for the exchange unfiltered data. In Australia, the majority of Internet traffic – and the bulk of illegal content – travels over peer-to-peer networks, which are unable to be censored by current filtering technologies. Second, the filtering program itself leads to negative externalities for all web users, including those that have no interest in the blocked content. Statistics suggest that about 1% of websites blocked by modern filters are blocked accidentally, thus creating unnecessary and unwarranted censorship, or “overblocking.” Additionally, even as Internet users demand ISPs deliver content faster than ever before, government studies indicate the filter “would result in a slowdown [ranging] from 18% through to 78% of current, unfiltered speed.”
To date, there is little detailed information available from the government about its filtering plans, but it likely will ultimately require ISPs to offer filtered Internet service to all homes, schools and public Internet points accessible by children. Experts believe the filter will impose a two-tiered censorship model. The first tier, mandatory for all covered Internet access points, would block “illegal” material; the second “optional” tier would block material deemed unsuitable for children, such as pornography, delivering only a “clean feed” service. If implemented, users would be able to opt out of only the secondary layer of the filter.
The mandatory filter targets “illegal content,” a term that the government has not yet attempted to define. Family First supports blocking all pornography that may be accessible by children, but the probable scope of the statute itself remains unclear. How exactly will the government deal with content that exists in the gray area between clearly legal and clearly illegal? For example, material rated above R 18+, which is currently legal for Australian adults to view, could potentially fall under the mandatory blacklist and thus could not be accessed through any Australian ISP. Likewise, it remains unclear whether controversial subjects such as euthanasia, pro-anorexia, and online gambling will be included in the mandatory tier. While the exact composition of the tiers remains unresolved, early indications are that in the case of gray-area material, the filtering system will err on the side of blocking content. Such a vague statutory definition has the potential to create an ever-expanding filter that would have a devastating effect upon free speech in Australia.
By enacting such far-reaching, mandatory Internet censorship, Australia joins more repressive governments including those in China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea. China is by far the biggest offender when it comes to Internet censorship – the nation’s Internet filtration policy is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. The Chinese government has a longstanding set of policies restricting the information to which citizens are exposed, and what they may say in public. Reporters Without Borders refers to China as the “world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents.”
Studies indicate that China blocks access to most websites about both Taiwan and Tibet. More than 60% of the first 100 Google search results for “Tibet” and 47% of “Tawian” are blocked. Preventing access to these sites is likely motivated by the government’s efforts to combat independence movements in Tibet and democratic reform efforts. More broadly, China blocks most content regarding “human rights” or “democracy” that specifically reference the country. Critics of censorship worry that it contributes to human rights violations, and abuses of the right to freedom of expression and information, epitomized in the suppression of political speech. The situation in China demonstrates how Internet censorship can be used – and abused – for political manipulation.
Although the Australian Constitution does not have any express provision relating to freedom of speech, the country has made efforts to defend this fundamental right. For instance, Australia is a signatory to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR“), which seeks to guarantee everyone the right to freedom of expression. Although some parts of the treaty have been implemented into law in Australia, the government has not implemented the free speech provisions and therefore they are not technically enforceable by Australian courts.
In the United States, efforts to filter Internet content have not gotten very far. In Reno v ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997),The Supreme Court found that all provisions of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), which made it a felony to use the Internet to display or send “indecent” material that could be seen by a minor, are unconstitutional as they apply to “indecent” or “patently offensive” speech. The Court supported the legislative goal of protecting children from exposure to adult material, but ruled that the provisions of the law unconstitutionally undermined the free-speech rights of adults and harshly refuted the government’s defense of the Internet censorship law. In a separate concurrence, Chief Justice William Rhenquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed that the provisions of the CDA are unconstitutional except in their narrow application to communications between an adult and one or more minors. The Supreme Court noted that broad filtering systems would place an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech, and threaten a large segment of legal Internet use. The decision was praised for recognizing what Congress did not — that speech cannot flourish under the shadow of censorship.
Digital media is a powerful platform for spreading political opinions, religious views, personal perspectives, and other core speech. Just a few years ago, the Internet was barely a part of political campaigning, yet it has become an important, low-cost tool for candidates and political activists all over the world to get their message out. For example, when the military government of Myanmar cracked down on protests by Buddhist monks in 2007, citizen journalists used blogs to share vital information — acting as a vital resource for traditional news outlets. Even when nations disagree, the Internet allows dialogue to enhance understanding. Palestinian and Israeli children exchange videos documenting their daily lives. In Iraq, American and British soldiers — as well as Iraqi citizens — share their experiences with YouTube audiences around and the world.
As a new media technology, the Internet empowers people. It has provided access to information, unprecedented in its scope, low-cost, and speed. It has revolutionized communication across the globe, providing both feasible and inexpensive access for everyday people. If we accept the argument that uncensored speech is fundamental to a thriving democracy, then more is at stake than mere Internet censorship in Australia. All nations, organizations, and individuals who believe in the promise of free speech, and its broader importance to human rights, have an ethical obligation to oppose this Internet filter. Freedom of Speech is vital to freedom of thought, the engine of democracy. It helps drive innovation and the free exchange of ideas. We Americans, with our strong Free Speech tradition, have long reaped the benefits of an open society; the United States should especially oppose Australia’s filtering proposal. Censorship of this magnitude in any democratic society is a threat to the citizens of every democratic society.
For more information, please visit:
NetAlert Program Homepage
Programs currently available, for free, to Australian homes to allow voluntary filtering
Australian Communications Media Authority
Australian regulatory body responsible for the Internet
No Clean Feed
A website organized to educate and organize opposition to the filter
Electronic Frontiers Australia
A pro-online civil liberties website featuring a useful F.A.Q. on the current state of the policy
Open Net Initiative
Organization dedicated to investigating and exposing government Internet filtering programs