Australia's lack of constitutionally guaranteed rights
made a much higher level of censorship possible in Australia than
in other democracies, constitutional law expert Professor
George Williams said today.
"Australia does not have a Bill of Rights which protects free
speech at a federal level," said Williams, the Anthony Mason
Professor of law at the University of New South Wales. "We don't
have the protections that they have in every other democratic
"That means Australia might be subject to far more stringent
regulations on the internet than would be possible in other
democratic countries," he told ZDNet.com.au this morning in the wake of the revelation of the government's plans to filter Australia's internet for objectionable content.
For example, the degree of censorship proposed by the Australian
government would be almost impossible in the United States because
that country's constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
"They might be able to have internet filters that just
restricted child pornography but not the breadth being considered
here," Williams said. By contrast, the Australian constitution only
guarantees freedom of speech in selected circumstances such as
allowing political communication and criticism of politicians, he
This could open the door to a regime that censored "a
significant number of sites that are not illegal" and that would
"separate Australia from the great bulk of Western liberal
democracies", according to a report by three senior media studies
academics released today.
The report, Untangling the Net: The Scope of Content Caught By
Mandatory Internet Filtering by Professor Catharine Lumby from the
University of New South Wales, Professor Lelia Green from Edith
Cowan University and Professor John Hartley from the Queensland
University of Technology, was highly critical of the model proposed
yesterday by Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy, a blacklist of
overseas sites similar to the one currently maintained by the
Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
"One of the clear risks of focusing disproportionate public
policy attention and public resources on content regulation is that
many parents and teachers may gain a false sense of security when
it comes to the material their children encounter online," the
report warned. "This risk is particularly high in a regulatory
system that relies on a blacklist which, by its very nature, will
only capture and represent a small sample of the online material of
The report found that only 32 per cent of the sites on ACMA's blacklist
related to child pornography, with the remainder comprising content
that had been classified R18+, X18+, RC and unspecified.
"If a mandatory internet filtering regime were to be implemented
along similar regulatory lines to the current classification system
used by the ACMA in the formation of their blacklist then it is
likely that the scope of filtered content will not include just
illegal content (such as child pornography) but also prohibited
content (such as material rated X18+ or material rated MA15+, R18+
and not subject to appropriate restricted access systems)."
"The ACMA is blacklisting a significant number of sites that are
not illegal content but are considered offensive."
"While this may be considered acceptable where filtering is
opt-in by an end user (or parent for family computers), under a
mandatory filtering regime this would result in capturing material
that is clearly legal but restricted in availability (off the
internet) through classification restrictions."
If it were introduced, Australia would be the only liberal
democracy in the world to have a mandatory internet censorship
regime, the report found.
"The proposal would set Australia apart from other Western
liberal democracies that have opted for a transparent, voluntary
filtering regime that involves interactions between governments,
the police, advocacy groups, ISPs, not-for-profit organisations and
the general public in determining how to counteract access to
undesirable content. This approach has been successfully applied in
the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand."