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Secret forum reveals Oz firewall backroom dealing

Circumvention legal, but you can't tell anyone how

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Australia’s plans for a firewall to protect its population from smut on the internet are rapidly evolving from farce to total chaos. Weekly revelations on bulletin boards suggest that Stephen Conroy, the man behind the big idea, does not know what forthcoming legislation on the topic will say, when it will be introduced or how the firewall will work in practice.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Minister’s own Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) has been hosting a secret forum for discussions with ISPs likely to be affected by proposals. Along the way it floated the idea of making it a crime to advise surfers on how to do things that are perfectly legal to do. Confused? You will be.

First up is the time scale for plans to introduce the new firewall. As already reported, the question of when legislation will be introduced has now been bouncing between the offices of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Severe wriggling from Conroy’s office suggests that plans for an early introduction of legislation have been put on the back burner for now.

As if one embarrassment were not enough, at the end of April, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) revealed that it had in its possession screenshots of a secret forum hosting discussions between the Department of Communications and various ISPs.

Despite assurances from Conroy in December 2009 that legislation would be before the Australian parliament by March of this year, one post on the forum from mid-April acknowledged that the Department had not yet assembled even draft legislation.

Meanwhile further digging inside this forum revealed that departmental officials appear to have been discussing the possibility of making it a criminal offence to advise individuals of means that would enable them to circumvent the filter – even where the means themselves were perfectly legal.

This last revelation proved too much for the Australian Pirate Party, which weighed into the debate shortly after, accusing the government of hosting plans that would be at home with oppressive regimes such as Iran or China.

A spokesman for the Pirate Party said: "What is concerning ... is that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE)] have considered making the promotion of circumvention somehow illegal.

"If circumvention will not be illegal, then how can it be illegal to simply tell people how to circumvent the government-controlled infrastructure in order to secure access to information that the Australian Government may deem inappropriate."

Such an offence, according to the Pirate Party would mean "effectively silencing political debate" in Australia.

However, in an apparent attempt to stop the rot, the Department of Communications last Monday finally provided answers to a string of questions on the working of the firewall previously put to it by Green Senator, Scott Ludlam.

In yet another apparent volte-face, the department now claims that it would be perfectly legal for customers to adopt circumvention techniques. Its response further reveals that the Minister is well aware of the efficacy of such techniques, prompting speculation that he is actually far better informed than his public pronouncements suggest: that he knows the firewall will be of minimal effectiveness, and therefore his pursuit of this project is motivated more by populist politics than a desire to find a practical solution.

Most ominous of all for the theoretical firewall is a departmental admission that the government will put in hand a "technical review" if ever the filter hits the 10,000 URL mark and starts to creak under the strain.

As the EFA suggests, this answer raises more issues than it addresses, and relies on the degradation of the Australian network being gradual, rather than catastrophic. It does appear, however, that the government has no plans to deal with a possible overload of its firewall bringing the Australian internet to its knees – beyond setting up a review when such an event actually happens.

By then, of course, it could all be far too late. ®

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