The great firewall of Australia: The political concerns

Despite strong opposition, the Australian government continues to support mandatory filtering of the Internet, seeking to establish a "Great Firewall of Australia." If filtering is implemented, all internet service providers (ISPs) would have to scan their Internet traffic in real time, blocking access to sites that appear on a government blacklist, says Chris Williams-Wynn, a recent honours graduate of the University of Melbourne.

While protecting children is necessary, the blanket approach embodied in ISP level filtering raises freedom of expression concerns, says Williams-Wynn:

  • Under the current system, the process for blocking material is opaque; to report websites, users must navigate through the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) Website to an area where complaints can be lodged.
  • Although complaints are purportedly investigated before any action is taken, some material is still incorrectly blocked; the process raises the concern that any web content the government considers objectionable could be blocked without warning, explanation or community consultation.

    Recent information demonstrates errors may also remain undetected and unremedied, says Williams-Wynn:
  • Following a leak of the ACMA's blacklist, about 150 Websites were reportedly removed, suggesting that their content was reviewed in response to increased public pressure and awareness, not because of existing guidelines.
  • The leak and its aftermath highlight the lack of public review in the current blacklist system; all decisions are made behind closed doors with no requirement that reasoning be published.
  • The only notification to a blacklisted party is a takedown notice directed at the Website's host, if Australian.

    The government has recognised that more accountability and transparency is necessary, says Williams-Wynn:
  • One proposal is for the ACMA to refer material that receives an RC or "Refused Classification" rating (given to material depicting child sex abuse, bestiality, sexual violence and detailed instruction of crime or drug use) to the Classification Board, where there is an existing process that allows content producers to appeal against ratings decisions.
  • The ACMA could be required to notify content owners of RC ratings, though it is not always possible to identify who is responsible for a Website.
  • Another option is to have a standard "block page" that would appear whenever an Internet user tried to access a URL on the blacklist; that would give the user an opportunity to appeal against the classification, or to publicise unnecessary censorship.

    Source: Chris Williams-Wynn, The Great Firewall of Australia: The Political concerns, Policy Magazine, Vol. 26, No. 1, Autumn 2010.

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    First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, United States

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 27 July 2010
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