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Australia backs down from Internet filter plan

Only the vilest smut from Interpol's lists to be blocked

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Australia will not proceed with its plan to filter the Internet on behalf of its citizens.

Stephen Conroy, the nation's Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has issued a statement saying that internet service providers will be required to block some content – child abuse sites listed by Interpol – but that plans for a wider filter will not be pursued.

It's not clear why Conroy has backed away from the filter, which he has defended as government policy and as a measure that will protect the vulnerable.

The decision to insist that ISPs at least block material on Interpol's list keeps the faith with one of-stated purpose for the filter, namely blocking child pornography. Several ISPs already filter sites on Interpol's list voluntarily, and Conroy now says that effort has been such a success that a full filter is not needed.

He has directed the Australian Federal Police to work with the remainder of Australia's ISPs to ensure they also block sites Interpol lists.

Support for the filter came largely from socially-conservative groups, and it has been assumed that the policy was a way for the progressive government to win favour from such organisations. But criticism came from The Greens, and even the economically conservative opposition parties felt it represented an unwelcome dent in personal liberties. Technologists also pointed out the plan to filter any material refused classification by Australia's Classification Board was likely to be unworkable.

ISPs, who were asked to do most of the heavy lifting, generally disliked the filter and the costs it would impose on them.

The filter became infamous around the world, as the proposed censorship regime it represented meant that Australian internet controls would be the toughest imposed by any liberal democracy, and comparable to those imposed by some of the planet's nastiest dictatorships.

The filtering plan also looked rather out of place, given the government's generally progressive approach to technology: Australia is spending $AUD40bn on a fibre-to-the-premises network, and has conducted a Gov 2.0 inquiry that saw social media guidelines issued to government agencies and led to government documents being issued under a Creative Commons license.

Local politicians hardly go a day without talking up the importance of connectivity to Australia's economic future.

The government had edged away from the filter to some extent, all but parking development of the policy in 2010 by initiating a review of Australia's content classification system. That review emerged early this year and suggested that only a very narrow range of content depicting criminal acts be blocked.

That recommendation now seems to have been accepted and become policy. As the review was conducted independently, the government has a policy fig leaf it can use to deflect criticism from conservative groups.

The demise of the filter doesn't mean the end of anachronistic technology policy in Australia: the nation still has a law on the statute books forbidding its citizens from visiting gambling websites hosted offshore. The decade-old law has never been applied. ®

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