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Oz govt pushes mandatory net filters

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Australia's newly elected Labor government is pushing plans that would make it mandatory for local ISPs to install porn-blocking filters, offering "clean" internet feeds as a preferred option.

Telecomms Minister Stephen Conroy said the policy would protect children from online pornography and violent websites, ABC News reports. Senator Conroy said the government would work with ISPs to make sure that filters did not affect the speed of the internet.

The idea has been kicked around in Australia and elsewhere for some years. The incoming Labor government is essentially backing a modified form of a scheme advocated, but not implemented, by its Liberal-National predecessors.

Under the latest variant of the filtering plan, Australian ISPs would have to provide a "clean feed" option for schools and homes. Individual users would be able to opt-out of the service and receive unfiltered content.

Schools and libraries are already free to install filters in the form of censorware packages. However commercial packages are often more attuned to the sensibilities of Bible Belt America than elsewhere. Leaving aside questions over the effectiveness of net-nanny software, of which there are many, kids might be restricted from accessing sexual health websites or campaigning groups such as Amnesty International as well as violent content.

At least censorware software is customisable and under the control of individual administrators. Going from a market-led to government-regulated regime for internet access smacks of the nanny state or, put even less charitably, Big Brother.

However Senator Conroy rejected criticism from civil liberties groups that state regulation of internet access damaged civil liberties.

"Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road," he said. "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree."

Senator Conroy compared the Labor government's filtering proposals to schemes in the UK and Sweden.

The UK's BT has been running a system called Cleanfeed, which censors access to several thousand websites on a blacklist compiled by UK Internet trade body, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) for over three years. The blacklist features sites containing images of child sexual abuse that are "illegal to view" in the UK, under the 1978 Child Protection Act.

The proposed Australian system would take this approach and extend it to include a list of sites that promote violence as well. ISPs would be instructed to block http requests to such sites.

Such a system only prevents 'casual' browsing of known websites. It will not hinder organised distribution of such images or Torrent downloads or even curtail the creation of new child abuse websites, most of which are hosted in Eastern Europe.

Filtering lists can be inaccurate so much depends on how quickly inaccuracies can be sorted out in order to ensure blocking websites offering illegal images causes the minimum of collateral damage.

But efforts are normally made to make filtering lists secret, which works against this objective. Experience in the UK, at least, suggest Senator Conroy's proposals will go down well with the man in the street but whether they'll prove effective or not is far more doubtful. ®

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