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Aussie firewall nears death

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The Australian Senate Opposition leader Nick Minchin has joined the growing chorus of voices against Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's plans for mandatory ISP-level filtering.

The project may not yet be deceased, but it is without doubt on the critical list.

Senator Minchin said the government had not only failed to release the results of recent trials of internet filtering software, but it had also refused to come clean on what measures would determine whether the trial could be considered successful or not.

"Almost two years after coming to office with a plan to censor the internet, Senator Conroy has not even managed to release results for long overdue filtering trials, let alone come close to actually implementing this highly controversial policy," he said.

"Previous trials of filtering technology have exposed serious problems with both the over-blocking and under-blocking of content, and concerns also remain about the adverse impact a national filtering regime could have on internet speeds."

This follows criticism from ISPs that a wide-scale roll-out could still hit internet performance, irrespective of apparently favourable results from the filter testing. Asked in a radio interview to set out what results he would consider to constitute a successful outcome, Senator Conroy refused to do so.

Senator Minchin went on: "Huge doubts also continue to surround the type of content Labor wants to filter and how it will compile a black-list which would form the basis of its filtering regime."

This reflects a longstanding debate as to precisely what sort of content the filter is designed to block.

Opposition politicians have been slow to act because they sensed a widespread and genuine public sense that "something must be done" to control material available on the internet. This found parliamentary expression in a petition by Tasmanian Liberal senator Guy Barnett which attracted support from across all parties.

For a while, opponents of filtering were accused of being soft on child porn. However, government reluctance to come clean as to what it intends to filter, and the fact that some pronouncements have focused on blocking material that is merely "undesirable" – as opposed to strictly "illegal" – has left supporters of the firewall looking increasingly shifty on this issue.

Despite his forthright opposition, Senator Minchin has left himself an escape route, adding that the Coalition remains prepared to look at filtering if the government puts credible trial results into the public arena. ®

Bootnote

Debate on censorship issues in Australia has always been acrimonious, reflecting tensions between liberals and fundamentalists. In the 1950s, Australia was noted for its book banning, including Catcher in the Rye.

Today, controversy surrounds the absence of an RF18+ category for computer games, which means that many games that may quite legally be purchased elsewhere are simply unable to obtain classification in Australia.

Most recently, this ambivalence took a bizarre turn, as Queensland Police arrested a father of four on child-abuse charges for possession of a video that the Federal Government's own censors have now classified as MA15+ (suitable for aged 15 and above).

The man did not create the footage, of a man swinging a baby, but found it online and uploaded it to another website.

According to police, however, despite the apparent go-ahead from the State censor, simply viewing the images could result in a ten-year jail sentence. He faces trial next year. Our story on his arrest is here.

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