When you think about Internet censorship, China is probably the first place to spring to mind. However, there is a growing move towards Internet filtering in democratic states that has civil liberties groups worried. Australia is the latest country to move towards adoption of a 'clean feed', which would block users from accessing certain sites. This policy has the potential to wreak significant changes on our media landscape, and it deserves closer attention.
Unlike in China, Burma, the United Arab Emirates, and other authoritarian regimes, plans to filter Australia's Internet have been justified as part of an attempt to create a safer online environment, rather than as a way to silence dissent. A media release
from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) says that the proposed policy is part of a $125.8 million Plan for Cyber-Safety, and that the filter would make the Internet "safer, particularly for children". The filtering would apply to all households and schools, and users who wanted to opt out would need to contact their Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Civil liberties groups have raised a number of concerns with these plans, and have begun a campaign
against Australia's Clean Feed. The first, and perhaps the most serious, of their concerns relates to the impact the policy would have on how Australians experience and access the Internet. As it stands, the policy relies on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) implementing and monitoring the filtering. This would be likely to significantly increase the cost of Internet access, while lowering the speed of the Internet. Although the United Kingdom's Clean Feed is touted as an example of a system that can avoid these pitfalls, Aaron Kenny
of InternetSafety.com points out that Australia's Clean Feed would be aiming to block access to all pornographic material, illegal or not, which would present a far greater challenge than the UK system, which only blocks a small number of illegal sites. The technical problems this large-scale filtering would involve are be significant.
Secondly, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) chair Dale Clapperton
argues that ISP filtering is not necessarily an effective way to prevent children from accessing objectionable material. Some material, including pornography, "will inevitably get through", says Clapperton, who recommends that parents supervise their children's Internet use.
Finally, the blocking of "inappropriate" content may include sites that many Australians should legitimately be able to access. EFA has recently expressed alarm
at the existence of a second, secret blacklist. It appears that this blacklist would filter illegal content, and would not be optional. This opens up concerns about just what would be on the blacklist, and the extent of government censorship we are willing to accept. Even in countries with voluntary or minimal Internet filters, issues has arisen with the 'creep' of filtering into areas many citizens would be uncomfortable with. Libertus.net
points out that in March 2006, the Danish filter was found to be blocking a legal sex site, while The Pirate Bay, a filesharing site, has been temporarily or permanently blocked in Sweden, Denmark, and other countries. In the UK, a Guardian
article notes that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has proposed extending the child pornography filters to cover 'extremist' websites.
There are good reasons for both parents and the federal government to be concerned about how children use the Internet and what material they have access to. However, attempting to resolve complex issues through the use of technology is unlikely to lead to progress. Instead, we need to engage in a discussion about the context of children's Internet use. We also need to think critically about government attempts to control the media, whatever their professed motivations.