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Aussie government muffs plans for internet filtering

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Plans for filtering of all internet content in Australia could well backfire on the Labour Government, with talk of "socialism" banned, and muffins off the menu entirely.

On a more serious note, the Rudd Government has finally scared a concerted anti-censorship movement into being, which could in the long run lead to a backlash against those who have been pushing their own moral agenda onto the Australian people.

Problems with "socialism" were highlighted in a piece this week in the Australian Daily Telegraph, which gleefully pointed up the link between Labour and male impotence. Apparently, filters in other countries have hit problems with their ideology for the simple reason that it also contains the word "cialis" – an anti-impotence drug frequently promoted via spam email.

They also cite a story told by former Communications Minister Helen Coonan about the time when she attempted to order some strawberry muffins online. Her department’s filter system took exception to her use of "muff" – and the order did not go through.

Similar issues have occurred over the years in the UK with home-grown filter software that is not fully thought through. In one case, an Insurance company was rather surprised to find that after implementation of its in-house filtering system, direct mail campaigns to Essex, Sussex and Middlesex ceased entirely – as did communication with the inhabitants of Scunthorpe.

A couple of years back, respondents to a Home Office Consultation in the UK were surprised to find some submissions automatically rejected by a filtering system set up in one part of that Department. The consultation was on the subject of extreme pornography – and the filter took exception to receiving emails with the word "pornography" in the title.

As for what all this has done to the Australian political landscape, Fiona Patten, convenor of the Australian Sex Party, recently compared the sex industry to the caged canary that miners kept as an early warning against bad air.

Her view is that censorship of sexual material is more often than not followed by broader political censorship. The censorship tide in Australia today is coming in, and while many individuals may not get terribly excited about the censorship of what is generally regarded as smut, proposals by the Rudd Government to censor the internet through compulsory filtering feel very much like the thin end of the wedge.

The future role of the Sex Party in Australian politics will bear watching. The reason for their foundation was that governments of every stripe are unduly influenced by the small number of extreme pro-Christian pro-family independents who hold the balance of power in Senates at both State and Federal level. Their aim is to win a small number of Senate seats to redress that balance.

In the week since its launch, it claims to have signed up over 1,000 members, which gives it official recognition as a political party in Australia and permits it to put forward candidates for the Senate.

In further developments, which may eventually impact on the fate of the Sex Party, the Greens, with five Senators already elected, have now officially stated their opposition to the internet filtering proposal. Green Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam has been actively lobbying on the issue for some time.

On Tuesday, Green leader Bob Brown told ABC Television: "We're very, very concerned that there's going to be a unnecessary clampdown on the internet and it has to be watched."

In other legislatures, new and innovative political parties have often failed simply because, despite highlighting real electoral grievances, other parties have moved quickly to absorb their most significant policies. It is possible that this process has already started in Australia, with overlap between positions held by the Greens and the Sex Party, not only on internet filtering but on same-sex marriage, for which the Greens recently re-iterated their support.

In that case, expect the Sex Party to fade away over time – but if its aim is genuinely to break the stranglehold that a certain type of Independent has on the Senate, they may consider such an outcome to be a not bad result. ®

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