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Google takes China-buffed halo to Oz

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Not content with taking on China, Google were today squaring up for another fight over internet censorship, this time with the Australian government.

Google, in a submission to the Australian government, said it was worried that: "the scope of content to be filtered is too wide".

The Australian proposals went "well beyond" filters being considered in countries such as Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, which are focused only on blocking material related to child sex abuse.

Worse, by damaging Australia's reputation, over-broad regulation could "confer legitimacy upon filtering by other governments". This is believed to be a reference to the activities of the Chinese government, which fell out of love with Google today.

A spokesman reinforced this, adding: "The governments of many other countries may justify, by reference to Australia, their use of filtering, their lack of disclosure about what is being filtered, and their political direction of agencies administering filtering."

This has been a bad week for the Australian government’s attempts to position itself as merely delivering a policy that the voters want and is primarily for the protection of children.

The official line is that the administration wishes to block access to sites that feature material such as rape, drug use and bestiality in addition to those that feature child sex abuse. A spokeswoman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has also let it be known that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will be blocking material that would be "refused classification" (RC) in other media. She told AFP: "The government does not support RC content being available on the Internet."

This appears to be based on the principle that the same standards of censorship should be applied evenly across different media, including films, books and DVDs - although the legal model in other countries such as the UK has tended towards setting up different censorship regimes for each medium.

Such an extension would broaden the scope of the filter even further, leading potentially to blocks on material that is seen to advocate criminal acts, or to be useful to others intending to commit such acts.

Despite criticisms of its blocking policy and claims by critics that fewer than half of the sites on the current list relate to child abuse, the ACMA has consistently refused to publish the list. This contrasts with active debate going on in other jurisdictions as to the best way to audit block lists and to provide the public with confidence that the government is not quietly expanding the scope of what is blocked.

In further bad news for the government, Yahoo! Australia added its voice in support of Google’s contention that the filter was too broad and warned that it could block content "with a strong social, political and/or educational value" on topics such as euthanasia, graffiti, terrorism, abortion and homosexuality.

Last week, it was the turn of French organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to put the boot in, as it listed Australia, along with South Korea, Turkey and Russia, as countries "under surveillance" in its "Internet Enemies" report.

According to RSF, Australia is not yet in the same league as Iran or North Korea when it comes to censorship. Nonetheless, their mandatory filtering proposals have raised concerns. ®

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