Australia Senate passes Net control bill

The bill will allow the Australian Broadcasting Authority the power to order Internet Service Providers to take content off their servers.
Written by Gordon Finlayson, Contributor on
Against a backdrop of protest from industry groups, the Democrats and the Labor Party, the Coalition Government has passed its controversial Online Services Bill through the Senate - a bill that will give the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) the power to order Internet Service Providers to take content off their servers.

The passing of the bill will place Australia in the select international company of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, who have all passed legislation to attempt to filter content on the Internet.

The legislation was passed through the Senate with the support of conservative Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine over objections from Democrats and the Labor Party. Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja noted her party's objection to the bill, saying that it supported the need to control illegal and offensive content on the Internet but felt that the government legislation would fail to do so and would have a detrimental effect on the Internet industry.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 will hand over control of the regulation of Internet content to the ABA, which will then be responsible for hearing complaints regarding illegal or offensive content found onthe Internet. Once the ABA determines that a site is offensive or illegal it will then have the power to direct ISPs to take down the content from their servers. ISPs will also be compelled to join industry codes of practice that are likely to mandate the use of blocking technology on their servers.

Industry figures have branded the legislation as technically unfeasible and potentially unworkable. In a recent letter to the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Senator Richard Alston, Connect.com's CEO, John Stuckey noted that instituting filtering software on his company's network could cost as much as $1.5 million.

The Online services bill has also come under fire from overseas with US Senator Ron Wyden noting in a letter to the Australia's US Ambassador,Andrew Peacock, that the legislation is contrary to the spirit of the 1998 Australia-United States Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce.

Australia's peak Internet industry body, the Internet Industry Association (IIA), played a prominent role in lobbying the government over changes to the bill and was influential in some of the amendments that eventually were enacted. According to the IIA's Chair, Patrick Fair, the legislation is likely to result in most Australian ISPs joining industry codes that will enforce the use of filtering software.

While Fair said that the legislation is a blow for the industry, he noted that the IIA had been able to water down some of the harshest aspects of the legislation.

"We said in our submission that we though the government should start again with the legislation, but we didn't get a reduction in penalties, we didn't get a removal of blocking - overall we didn't win from this process. On the other hand a substantial part of our submission is in this bill. The IIA in negotiating the code scheme for the bill will be in a good position to protect the financial interests of the industry."

According to Fair, amendments to the bill to ensure that the ABA can't put in place technically unfeasible or financially damaging regulations will take some of the bite out of the legislation.

"A major and important change that arose from our submission - is the ability to designate codes, but we still got the bill and we're not pleased about that, on the other hand the government knocked some of the sharp edges off it."

According to Fair the IIA's involvement in making submissions and lobbying the government over changes the bill has made it a target ofresentment from some sectors of the industry. He was keen to point outthat the IIA does not support the bill and its lobbying attempts were aimed at minimising harm from the legislation to the industry.

"We feel a bit punch drunk at the IIA because the industry has been having a go at us for working with the government on the legislation. What I want to make clear is that we didn't invent the legislation, and we opposed it, but we feel that by working with the government we've hada substantial effect on altering the bill to reduce the harshness of the legislation."

Despite the widespread criticism, the Minister for Information Technology, Senator Richard Alston claimed that the legislation won't harm the development of the online economy.

"We made it clear that we did not wish to hamper the development of the information economy in Australia. Following the Senate Select Committee on Information Technology's report into the Bill, the Government introduced amendments to ensure that this objective was met," Alston stated.

One of the organisations leading the protest against the bill has been Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), an online civil liberties lobby group. According to EFA Director, Kimberly Heitman, the passing of the legislation through the Senate was highly disappointing, but his organisation will continue its protest actions.

"While we deplore and regret the Senate's action, there are two main options available to us - this is still required to pass through the House of Representatives, so we can hope that some of the politicians there will examine the bill a bit closer," Heitman noted. "This bill also requires a raft of other legislation in order to enforce it. There is the possibility that the new senate will have some effect at altering the legislation so that it is less onerous on the industry."

Heitman noted that the legislation is very unlikely to be able to achieve the government's goals to censor the Internet and is very likely to have the effect of filtering inoffensive as well as 'offensive' content and will have a detrimental effect on the development of Australia's online economy. "This country has created a whole new area of e-commerce - how to get out of Australia fast," he said.

Heitman also suggested that the legislation is likely to drive adult sites offshore or underground, resulting in the possibility that Australian children will be able to access more content that is unregulated by the government.

"What we'll be facing is that since there can be no legal X rated sites in Australia, the sites will either leave the country, or any sites that remain will be un-rated and will feel no compunction to comply with thelaws as they will already be illegal. What we're likely to face is an increase in children getting material that is un-rated in Australia."

The EFA has scheduled a national day of protest this Friday to register its concerns over the bill.

"We'll still be using Friday's protest day to raise awareness amongst the community that they have lost an unfiltered Internet and to focus that the government has put the cart before the horse by putting in legislation before it has the technology to enable it."

Details of the EFA's protest actions can be found at www.efa.org.au.

Editorial standards