Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/14/aussie_firewall_latest/

Aussie net censorship turning Chinese

Minister opts for Google China-style stifling

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 14th February 2010 10:02 GMT

Recent DDoS chaos on the Australian internet may have been great fun for all involved – but behind the good-humoured anarchy lies a growing concern that the government really does have a dark and Big Brotherly vision for the future of politics in the country.

As reported in The Register this week, groups exasperated by government plans for a mandatory firewall that will censor far more than the child porn material claimed, finally resorted to long-promised direct action, with a short and successful DDoS attack on government sites and offices.

At its peak, the attacks floored Australia's parliamentary website for around an hour as well as having serious impact on The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy website.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy responded by branding those who carried out the attacks "irresponsible". This is the stock response of officialdom to direct action that causes any form of inconvenience: however, such action has a long and distinguished pedigree, with supporters arguing it is absolutely justified where existing political mechanisms do not give voice to a significant point of view.

While distancing itself from the action – and denying all responsibility for it – the Australian Sex Party has accused Mr Conroy of being anti-democratic in the way he is conducting debate. The action appeared to spring from a Sex Party media release last week that reported the banning of women with small breasts from adult magazines by Australian censorship authorities.

Convenor Fiona Patten said: "Senator Conroy... uses unfair tactics by continuing to ban the Australian Sex Party website from within his own department.

"Despite letters of protest about the unconstitutional nature of such bans he refuses to budge. These bans have now spread to state government departments with the Victorian Dept of Infrastructure the latest government agency to ban access to the Sex Party’s site."

She also expressed concern over Senator Conroy’s statements in Senate Estimates that he admired Google’s role in blocking content in countries such as China and Thailand. She adds: "First he tells us that it is only Refused Classification (RC) material that will be blocked and only via a complaint driven scheme. Now he is discussing getting Google to block search requests for what might be considered RC material."

Having recently discovered a backbone in its dealings with China, Google declared itself unimpressed. Warning that this would lead to the removal of many politically controversial but harmless YouTube clips, a spokesman said Google will not "voluntarily" comply with the government's request that it censor YouTube videos in accordance with broad "refused classification" content rules".

This request by Senator Conroy emerged in an interview with ABC’s Hungry Beast, as he finally appeared to accept the long-standing argument put forward by critics that applying ISP filters to high-traffic sites such as YouTube would slow down the internet.

Google Australia's head of policy, Iarla Flynn, confirmed that Google can give no assurances that it would voluntarily remove all Refused Classification content from YouTube. She added: "The scope of RC is simply too broad and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.

"RC includes the grey realms of material instructing in any crime from [painting] graffiti to politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia, and exposing these topics to public debate is vital for democracy."

Despite this, a poll this week (also for Hungry Beast) has been promoted as showing widespread support for the government’s proposed internet filter. However, this poll obscures rather more than it illuminates. In answer to a question as to whether they are in favour of the government acting to help prevent children being exposed to inappropriate material on the internet, a resounding 94 per cent said yes.

This muddies the water greatly. The RC category includes not just child abuse material, but also "bestiality, sexual violence, gratuitous, exploitative or offensive sexual fetishes; and detailed instructions on or promotion of crime, violence or use of illegal drugs". From Senator Conroy’s latest remarks, this would just be the start point for future Australian censorship.

Another question, which has received slightly less publicity, was whether website filtering might in future be used to block free speech. The answer to that was an almost equally resounding 70 per cent affirmative. The debate goes on. ®