Government seeks ways to increase internet censorship

Three years after the federal government first announced a proposed internet filter, the twists and turns of the various versions of the policy and conflicting statements about it have been challenging to keep track of. One certainty is that the proposal as it stands after the 2010 election has almost nothing in common with the original.

The initial rationale for the ALP’s technically vague internet filtering proposal, before the 2007 election, was to protect children from exposure to unsuitable, “adult”, content. Internet service providers (ISPs) would be required to provide the option of a filtered child-safe “clean feed” for any of their customers who wanted it.

After that election, the minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, revealed that his plan for the filter would be “opt out” rather than “opt in”. Late in 2008, Conroy announced that opting out would not be permitted, and various stories emerged of what kind of content would be blocked and what methods would be used to implement the filter. Now the optional filter for the protection of children from online exposure has disappeared, replaced by a compulsory ISP filter for everyone, to block sites placed on a secret list by bureaucrats who deem the content to be inappropriate for adults.

Secret blacklist

The current internet censorship regime was introduced in 2008. This involves a secret blacklist maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the federal regulator of broadcasting, radio spectrum and telecoms. Officials in the ACMA put sites on the blacklist based on their guess as to whether the material on the page would be refused classification by the Classification Board. The Classification Board is a ministerially appointed committee that decides what films, games and books we are permitted to watch, play or read, by either classifying them or refusing to classify them, which in effect means banning them from sale. Blacklisted web pages hosted inside Australia are ordered closed down by the ACMA on pain of large fines, while those hosted overseas will supposedly be blocked by the proposed censorship filter.

This far more draconian set of proposals sparked opposition from democratic rights and civil liberties groups such as Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), internet industry groups and technical groups, opposition which spread into broader based coalitions organising demonstrations in various cities in 2009.

During this period, Conroy developed a habit of responding to even mild criticism of his proposals with insinuations that his critics were, at least, enablers of child abuse. Conroy has frequently referred to the categories of material subject to blacklisting as including child pornography, bestiality and advocacy of terrorism, in the hope that this would persuade people that these are the only categories of material that would be subject to bans and filters.

But EFA has warned: “It would include sites that provide ‘instruction in crime’, like information on euthanasia, safe drug use, or even graffiti. It would even include computer games that are rated higher than MA-15+, which are banned for sale in Australia.”

When Wikileaks published the secret ACMA blacklist, to great fulminations from the embarrassed government, it was revealed that many blocked sites were benign from the point of view of the criteria for “refused classification”. Once the leaked blacklist was on line, it was itself added to the blacklist, so linking to it from a site hosted in Australia could earn large fines. EFA linked to a blacklisted page (an anti-abortion site with graphic images) to demonstrate that the blacklist extends into the realm of political speech, but was forced to remove the link after its hosting provider received a “final link deletion notice” from ACMA, exposing the host to fines of $11,000 per day for non-compliance. This incident illustrates the impossibility of concretely discussing the merits of censorship under conditions of censorship.

Expansion plans?

Technically, the proposed filter is likely to be very ineffectual in stopping determined people with a little know-how from accessing any overseas sites. The impossibility of supervising the millions of pages on the web means any blacklisting will be triggered by complaints, putting only a tiny minority of pages under scrutiny. Circumventing the filter will not be illegal, and none of the material blocked by the filter will be illegal to download or possess except that which was already illegal to download or possess. The filter is largely useless for the purpose it is being touted for, but the government remains absolutely determined to introduce it. So what is it really useful for?

The infrastructure for the blacklisting of content at ISP level does have other potentials that could be attractive to governments and state agencies with authoritarian ambitions. Once the technical pieces are in place, it is much easier to adapt them to other purposes, in the same way that capsicum spray, originally proposed as a “non-lethal alternative” to guns in the hands of police, has been normalised into an instrument of torture. The already loose definitions of support for terrorism or “instruction in crime” could easily be extended to serve the war needs of the Australian government and its allies. For example, Wikileaks has been under sustained attack from all quarters, including the corporate media. Hypocritical attacks, smear campaigns and blocking its finances have not been able to stop its leaks or discredit them, but making it more difficult for people to access antiwar news could limit its readership.

Apart from the proposed filter and censorship regimes, an emerging concern is the federal government’s data-retention plans. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the attorney general’s department has been in secret consultations with ISPs about a plan to impose mandatory logging of the internet activities of all users and make them available to state agencies including police. There are rumours the plan may involve storing the web browsing history of all ISP customers.

It is difficult to establish the veracity of such rumours because the consultation document, released under Freedom of Information, was almost entirely blacked out, with just a few paragraphs, the page numbers, section numbers and some of the glossary left visible. The department later said the document was censored in order to prevent “premature and unnecessary debate”. As proponents of universal surveillance like to say, “If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear”. It looks as though this government greatly fears the uncontrolled and unmonitored communication the internet makes possible.

[The website Electronic Frontiers Australia has detailed information on internet free speech and privacy issues.]