The reasoning behind the Australian Labor Party’s failed mandatory Internet filtering policy.

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Governments around the world have trialed and implemented many different ways to filter Internet content to their citizens. Australia is one country that has tinkered with the possibility of implementing a mandatory Internet filter.

In 2007, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) ran a federal election campaign that included an introduction of a mandatory filter through Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The policy proposed would allow ISPs to block websites that contained content focusing on child pornography and bestiality (Jacobs, 2010). ALP won the 2007 Australian election and began testing commercial filtering software. They soon ran into difficulties in implementing this filter (Bambauer, 2008, p. 4). This essay attempts to illustrate the difficulties the ALP government had in implementing the policy due to technical, political, religious and public disagreements on what should and shouldn’t be filtered through Australian ISPs to protect the country’s children.

The basis of the ALP’s mandatory Internet filtering policy was to create a ‘clean feed’ from the ISP level that blocked websites that have been deemed ‘inappropriate’ for children to be have access to (Simpson, 2008, p. 167). The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) were endorsed by the ALP to impose restrictions on content found on websites hosted in Australia and maintain a ‘blacklist’ of international websites which contained content such as child pornography (Levin, 2010, p. 47). This means that content on the Internet would be classified in the same way as movies, television programs and computer games and will be put into one of three categories (Simpson, 2008, p. 175). Refused Classification (RC), R 18+ and MA 15+ (Levin, 2010, p. 47). The idea behind these classification categories was “to provide advice to parents about what might be acceptable for their children, and advice generally to consumers as to the content” (Simpson, 2008, pp. 175-176). Stephen Conroy, ALP’s Communications Minister, stated that the decision to use ACMA was to put an arm’s length between the government and the classifications board, so the government was not responsible for individual decisions (McDermott, 2010).

Two levels of filtering were proposed by the ALP. The first level would include websites with ‘inappropriate content’ (RC). There were about 1300 websites on the ACMA ‘blacklist’ and these sites would be mandatorily blocked by ISP filters under the ALP policy (Bambauer, 2008, p. 9). The problem with this ‘blacklist’ was that it wasn’t publicised. Unlike offline classification decisions, ACMA keep Internet material classification decisions secret (Bambauer, 2008, p. 9). The ‘blacklist’ is maintained by the ACMA and based on public complaints (Levin, 2010, p. 47). The second level would be used to block sensitive material (R 18+ and MA 15+), but would allow for adults to bypass the filtering restrictions (Bambauer, 2008, p. 6). The second level of filtering would not be mandatory for ISPs to offer (Levin, 2010, p. 47).

The ALP Internet filtering policy seemed like a good idea to help parents, schools and society to keep children safe from ‘bad’ Internet exposure. But like all political policies, and Australia being a democratic country, all citizens are entitled to their freedom of speech, expression and religious belief on the proposed Internet filtering policy (House, n.d). Religious values can inform and influence the shape of the laws and policy in Australia (Simpson, 2008, p. 169). There were some very vocal groups advocating the Internet filtering policy and pushing their values of what they believe to be the best version of a ‘clean feed’. These groups include the Australian Christian Lobby, the Australian Family Association, the Family First Party, the Catholic Church and many other religious groups (Simpson, 2008, p. 169).

“What constitutes good or bad content is ultimately a value judgment rather than a scientific evaluation” (Simpson, 2008, p. 170). There were other contributing groups who believed that the ALP proposed Internet filter would be censoring Australians democratic rights to their freedom of speech and expression online. Electronic Frontiers Australia (EPA) have heavily documented the process of the mandatory Internet filtering policy on their website and have shown criticism of the government trying to censor the Internet, which is a great enabler of free speech (Jacobs, 2010). Contributor Colin Jacobs criticises the use of the ACMA classification scheme and it’s use for classifying online content and states that “a system designed for books and cinemas can’t be shoehorned onto the net, no matter how hard you try” (Jacobs, 2010). When ACMA censor a book or a movie, they censor a publisher or media company who know how to navigate their way through the ACMA system (Jacobs, 2010). When censoring a blogger or someone with a genuine opinion online, these ordinary citizens don’t generally know how to navigate their way through the legalities of the ACMA classification processes if they were to find themselves on the secret ‘blacklist’.

Jacobs also comments on content that doesn’t fit into the ACMA categories. Websites containing information on euthanasia, safe drug use and graffiti could get caught up into the ACMA ‘blacklist’, among other legitimate websites (Jacobs, 2010). There was an apparent ‘blacklist’ leaked in 2010 which included a website for a Queensland dentist as a RC website and almost half the sites listed were not related to child pornography (Levin, 2010, p. 48).

Besides the ethical, religious and political reasons and also the process in which websites would be classified in Australia, there were major flaws in the mandatory Internet filtering through ISPs technically. It was argued that those who are seeking out ‘inappropriate content’ on the Internet can circumvent the filter and use proxy websites and private networks (Levin, 2010, p. 49). “Some sophisticated users will employ these seemingly unrelated sites to access banned material” (Bambauer, 2008, p. 24). To target these avenues in which ‘inappropriate material’ could be accessed, the filters would often target websites that can bear no relation to the material in question (Bambauer, 2008, p. 24). This is how the above mention Dentist website got caught up in the ACMA ‘blacklist’.  Mark Newtown, an ISP Network Engineer, states that 37 different circumventing methods were tested during a pilot trial and all of them bypassed the mandatory Internet filter (McDermott, 2010). Peter Coroneos, from Internet Industry Association, stated on the ABC’s Four Corners series in 2010 that  “a lot of the content that families really are concerned about for their children, things like violent material, racial hatred material, material which promotes race hate, maybe even just adult content that you wouldn’t want your children to see, none of that will be picked up by this filtering solution.” (McDermott, 2010).

Other technical downfalls of the proposed ALP’s mandatory Internet filtering policy were detected during pilot testing. After testing out different filtering software at the ISP level, there was a significant decrease in Internet access speeds of up to 86% (Bambauer, 2008, p. 3). With already struggling broadband speeds in Australia, this kind of effect on Internet access could leave some Australian’s with access speeds barely any faster than dial-up (Bambauer, 2008, p. 17). Coroneos used the water system as an analogy for this.

“If there are impurities in the water system, the question is where is it best to locate the filter? A lot of taps in kitchens these days have got filters fitted and they’re fine filters and they will pick up fine particulate matter. To put the same fine filter at the head end of the water supply would obviously filter the entire system but it would also dramatically slow the system. So if you want to provide a solution that really is going to be granular in its control in terms of the range of content that parents could determine they don’t want their children to see, that is far better done at the user end” (McDermott, 2010).

Mandatory Internet filtering at the ISP level could end up costing ISPs and Australian’s more as the filtering would be an extra overhead cost. ISPs would need to invest in additional network capacity to cope with the increase in bandwidth (Bambauer, 2008, p. 17). Though the government stated that their trials proved that an ISP filter can accurately target the websites listed in the ACMA ‘blacklist’ without a noticeable impact to internet access speeds (McDermott, 2010).

On November 10 2012, the ALP backed down on the mandatory Internet filtering policy. “Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with these challenges, such as the government’s now-abandoned mandatory internet filter, are not appropriate, nor likely to be effective in terms of outcomes or value for money” (Lawrence, 2012). Due to the overwhelming obstacles faced by the ALP’s proposed policy, the government finally accepted that mandatory Internet filtering via ISPs was unworkable and posed as a threat to free speech in Australia (Lawrence, 2012).

The failed ALP’s mandatory Internet filtering policy is an example of why Internet filtering in democratic countries, like Australia, will not work. There are many conflicting ideals of what is classed as RC and what people should be allowed to access online, regardless of age. Protecting children from sexual content, predators and child abuse is a great idea, but to parent the country’s children at the expense of all citizens’ democratic rights was never going to work. “The idea that the Internet is this scary place that parents don’t understand, that everybody needs protection from, isn’t a view that’s held by most of society” (McDermott, 2010). The question of who should filter the Internet in Australia still goes unanswered and so parents and educational intuitions of young impressionable children at this point should supervise children’s online habits to protect them from ‘inappropriate content’ online.

 

REFERENCES

Bambauer, D. (2008). Filtering in Oz: Australia’s Foray Into Internet Censorship. Brooklyn Law School.

Chapman, C. (2009). The History of the Internet in a Nutshell. Six Revisions  Retrieved 19 September, 2013, from http://sixrevisions.com/resources/the-history-of-the-internet-in-a-nutshell/

House, M. o. A. D. a. O. P. (n.d). Australian democracy: an overview.   Retrieved 20 September, 2013, from http://moadoph.gov.au/democracy/australian-democracy/

Jacobs, C. (2010). The future of internet censorship. Electronic Frontiers Australia  Retrieved 19 September, 2013, from https://www.efa.org.au/2010/09/21/the-future-of-censorship/

Lawrence, J. (2012). EFA welcomes the government’s back down on mandatory internet filtering. Electronic Frontiers Australia  Retrieved 21 September, 2013, from https://www.efa.org.au/2012/11/09/internet-filtering-backdown/

Levin, J. (2010). Internet Censorship: The Debate Rages On. Screen Education(59), 46-51.

McDermott, Q. (Writer). (2010). Access Denied [Television], Four Corners. Australia: ABC.

Simpson, B. (2008). New Labor, new censorship? Politics, religion and internet filtering in Australia. Information & Communications Technology Law, 17(3), 167-183.

 

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