The censor arrived via email. Telechat, a porn site publisher, received its electronic missive from the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) -- the nation's newly minted regulator of Internet content -- on 18 January. And the news wasn't good.
That email, authored by ABA official Ben Scanlon, ordered Telechat, a privately owned company registered to Ed Parsons and situated in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, to take down four pages on its teenager.com.au Web site by 18:00 the next day.
But rather than prune the four offending pages, which contained naked pictures of young women, Telechat pulled its site offline. Within a day, teenager.com.au was relocated to a US-based server and back in business.
Telechat isn't alone. Since 1 January -- the day Australia's groundbreaking attempt at regulating the Internet first went into effect -- 27 Australian-based sites have received takedown notices from the ABA directing them to remove offensive content. Yet in what's turning out to be one of the more curious chapters in the saga of Net regulation, the takedowns are not causing a storm of protest. Instead, said Peter Coroneos, executive director of the Internet Industry Association (IIA), an Internet industry group representing 250 Australian companies, the heat's gone right out of the debate. "It's [a story] of empowerment, not censorship," said Coroneos.
What Coroneos means by empowerment is that, rather than blocking offending sites -- as the Singaporean government tried to do in 1997, Australia is taking a co-regulation approach that weds the Net industry and government regulators to the mores of wired Australians.
Under the Australian regime -- introduced on 1 January 2000, after the country's conservative Coalition government passed an Internet censorship amendment to the Broadcasting Services Act on 30 June 1999 -- the ABA's regulators only investigate a site such as teenager.com.au after a member of the public has filed a complaint. Since 1 January, the ABA, a government agency, has received about 90 complaints from Australian surfers about Australian sites -- and has issued 27 "takedown" notices. The regulations do not apply to non-Australian Web sites, although Australian ISPs are required to offer their customers filtering software.
An ABA spokeswoman said most of the sites issued with takedown notices were sexually orientated and determined to be RC, or refused classification. The agency refuses to detail which sites have been hit with the notices. However, according to the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, "RC" includes content depicting paedophilia, bestiality, "abhorrent" fetishes, "incest fantasies" and "sexual violence".
Danny Yee, a board member of civil liberties group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said the 27 takedown notices are small, considering that 200,000 Web sites hosted in Australia. "The ISPs are fine. They don't really face any real risk," he said. "It could have been worse. It may have been better if it was worse."
Besides the fact that the ABA is actually using film and video classification guidelines to classify Web sites, Yee considers the regulations arbitrary (because they are solely guided by consumer complaints) and unaccountable (because the ABA doesn't release details of censored sites). "It's a code that can be used by conservative elements to harass others," he said. "It's going to be used against controversial sites," he said, such as gay and lesbian sites, and student newspapers.
IIA's Coroneos is much more bullish about the Net content regulations -- and exasperated about the way they have been portrayed overseas, particularly in the US, as an Antipodean version of the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act. If there's any confusion, though, it's largely the fault of Australia's legislature.
The amendments passed last June, which included a controversial measure to force Australian ISPs to block foreign X-rated sites, were roundly condemned by local industry and consumer groups for turning Australia into the Net's village idiot. Between June and September 1999, the IIA sought to turn that lemon of legislation into lemonade, proposing a Content Regulation Code of Practice for ISPs. That industry-driven code, which also dealt with such issues as consumer privacy, spam and dispute resolution, was approved by the ABA on 16 December 1999 -- becoming the legally enforceable framework of Australia's online censorship regime. Under the code, Australian ISPs are no longer required to block any foreign sites.
"I am not defending [the legislative amendment] at all," Coroneos said. "But we [the industry] have set the rules under our code." Coroneos recently went on a five-week tour through Europe and the US, evangelising what he calls the "co-regulation" approach in an attempt to overcome the "FUDGE factor -- fear, uncertainty and doubt." He added that some of the US companies didn't like what they heard. "Some of the big US companies -- particularly the telcos -- are pretty freaked out by this because you are not talking about smoke-and-mirrors self-regulation. You are talking about real self-regulation," Coroneos said. "It's not just a façade like in the US"
According to the EFA's Yee, though, the IIA has to play ball with online censorship because it's "obviously worried" that the Australian government will change its mind and force ISPs to block foreign sites. "The IIA's not going to want to rock the boat," he said. "Half of the legislation is not being implemented at all. They are obviously worried that that could change."