Monday, December 29, 2008

Australia: Growing opposition to Labor’s Internet censorship

World Socialist Web Site
Sunday, Dec 28, 2008

More than 2,000 opponents of the federal Labor government’s plans to censor the Internet rallied in cities across Australia on December 13—the second national protest in the past two months. The demonstrations, which were convened by the Digital Liberty Coalition (DLC), are another indication of the growing concern of industry technicians, scientists and a broad range of ordinary people over the government’s attempts to control and regulate Internet access in Australia.

Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Minister for Broadband and Communications Stephen Conroy claim that two-tier Internet filtering measures announced last year will protect children from pornography and X-rated violence.

The measures, however, have little to do with protecting children but constitute a direct attack of freedom of expression and other basic democratic rights. Its real purpose is to establish the framework for government censorship of Internet sites.

Despite the broad-based opposition, Labor announced it would start “live testing” of its dual-level filtering system on December 24. The first level will block websites named in a secret blacklist maintained by the government’s Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The second level involves an optional filtering system that Labor claims will only block child pornography and other material it deems inappropriate or illegal for children. Those not wanting to be subjected to second-level filtering will be forced to lodge a special “opt out” request with their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Most of Australia’s largest Internet providers, including Telstra and Internode, have attacked the government and refused to participate in the testing.

Telstra’s chief operating officer Greg Winn declared that Labor’s measures were the equivalent of “trying to boil the ocean” and doomed to fail. IiNet managing director Michael Malone described Conroy as “the worst communications minister we’ve had in the 15 years since the [Internet] industry has existed”.

IT industry technicians have said that the filtering could be quickly and easily bypassed by anyone with rudimentary computer skills. In fact, the ACMA conducted Internet censorship filtering in 2001, 2003 and 2005 before abandoning the system as “unworkable”. IT experts have also pointed out that the filtering will drastically slow Australia’s already poor quality broadband connection speeds.

Last Friday the System Administrators Guild of Australia (SAGE-AU), which represents IT professionals, issued an open letter calling on Labor to abandon its plans. The letter pointed out that the system would slow Internet speed by up to 87 percent and could block at least one in twelve legitimate websites.

One of the most serious aspects of the plan is the lack of public oversight of the Internet filtering tests or even a public list of banned sites. According to the media, the ACMA has a list of 1,300 sites currently being blocked but during testing will censor an additional 10,000 websites.

The names of these sites will be kept secret by the Labor government and the blacklist exempted from all Freedom of Information requests. The list has been developed in consultation with the Australian Federal Police and various international police agencies, including Interpol and the FBI. The government refuses to provide any means for banned sites to challenge their blacklisting.

Legislation imposing the system has yet to be passed in the federal parliament and, although the Greens and Liberals have said they will reject it, Labor has won the support of right-wing Senator Stephen Fielding from Family First and Senator Nick Xenaphon, an anti-gambling candidate from South Australia. The only other public supporters of the government measures are right-wing religious groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby and Child Wise.

While sections of the media, for their own business reasons, have been critical of the Internet censorship plans, they have not challenged Labor’s claims that its only motivation is to protect children from pornography and have reacted nervously to the street protests. On December 20, the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper, for example, described those participating “ageing hippies” and “young firebrands”.

The principal concern of the corporate media and the Rudd government is not child pornography but the danger posed when masses of people begin using the Internet to find alternative sources of news and information and begin organising politically and globally to challenge government policies and the entire official set-up.

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