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The great Aussie firewall is back - and this time it's personal

PM Gillard wants Oz law to treat the net like the telly

Internet censorship in Australia is once more on a roll, with more online content than ever coming up for a ban. It seems the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deciding that the great firewall was neither a political nor a technical issue, but a moral one.

First off, according to a report this week in The Australian, the amount of online content referred to the Australian Classification Board for a ruling by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) more than tripled - up from 77 referrals in 2008-9 to 258 in 2009-10. This year, more than five times as many URLs were banned as last year - the figures went from 14 last year to 78 in this.

The figures came to light this week in a session before the Senate Communications Committee, in which ACMA also revealed that in respect of 2,892 complaints about 3,441 different online content items, it decided to take some action in relation to 1,767 items.

One of the items categorised as online and banned ("refused classification") was Enzai, an interactive game featuring highly offensive physical and sexual abuse.

The importance of context was also highlighted, as ACMA referred three separate items linked to a newspaper story about the death of a woman during an Iranian demonstration. In the first case, the positioning of the event as a video news story on the Sydney Morning Herald website was sufficient to award the page a PG certificate, on the grounds that the "context of genuine news reportage mitigates the impact of the violence" and the site also provided appropriate viewer warnings.

However, the same clip hosted on YouTube and on another website, including user-generated comment about the event resulted in the classification level being raised to R18+.

ACMA said they have a wider role in the process of internet policing. Where banned content is hosted offshore, they pass on the relevant URLs to the filter-makers, to include in their blocking lists.

Any and all content depicting child abuse is referred to the relevant law enforcement agency. However, the figures in respect of such material will not go down well with those concerned that Australian censorship goes beyond the realms of simple child protection. As of 30 April 2010, there were 1,421 URLs on ACMA's blacklist, of which just 435 individual URLs belonging to 338 different internet domains - or a shade under 31 per cent of the URL total - related to child abuse material.

At present, ACMA revealed: "All URLs on the list are reviewed quarterly to check whether they are still pointing to prohibited, or potentially prohibited content". As a result of this review process "157 URLs on the November list were removed from the April list". ACMA is now looking to develop systems to allow for more regular and partially automated updates of the list.

Lest anyone think ACMA are out on a limb as their internet censoring is concerned, that is most certainly not the way lately returned Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard sees it. Reports from The Australian suggest that after going remarkably quiet on the subject during the election, possibly because the issue was seen as a vote loser, it is now back on the agenda - and this time, it's personal - or at least, "moral".

Speaking at a a press club meeting earlier this week, Gillard said that it is unlawful for an adult to go to a cinema and watch certain sorts of content. She said: "It's unlawful and we believe it to be wrong. If we accept that, then it seems to me that the moral question is not changed by the medium that the images come through."

This is an interesting argument - particularly as it is one rejected by most other Western legislatures, which enforce slightly different classification standards for different media, such as film, theatre and television - and eerily echoes the stance taken on this issue before the election by Labor's firewall enthusiast and Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy.

But have no fear. In response to a question from the Green's Communications spokesman, Scott Ludlam, on 4 October, the Attorney-General's Department has advised that "it has no evidence that an internet filter would increase the volume of encrypted internet traffic. The AFP has confirmed that they do not foresee any significant operational issues posed by filtering". ®

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