Porn access debate hots up in Australia

The Australian prime minister is looking at tightening legislation relating to underage access to online pornography, while ISPs argue that parents must take responsibility for their children's surfing

A think-tank whose new report has sparked a national outcry over underage access to pornographic Internet content has slammed Internet service providers' stance on filtering and blocking technologies as "irresponsible".

The Australia Institute's executive director, Clive Hamilton, made the comment to ZDNet Australia following a report in a Sydney newspaper on Tuesday that claimed Australia's broadcasting authority was set to ditch one popular filtering technology due to a failure rate of more than one-third.

However, the managing director of ISP Netspace Online Systems, Stuart Marburg, has described blocking technologies as too difficult and costly to set up and administer, and says they can be evaded through the use of anonymous proxies and other techniques. Marburg also told ZDNet Australia that filtering technologies degraded network performance and blocked legitimate content.

The debate began when the Australia Institute, a self-described "public interest think tank", released a report into the exposure of children to pornography on Monday, which spawned intense mainstream media interest and public debate.

The Institute followed that up with a statement that savaged the co-regulatory scheme for Internet content regulation. The report claimed that "regulation of pornography is manifestly failing" and the Australian Broadcasting Authority "seems to be more concerned to promote the use of the Internet than to protect children from its dangers."

Today's damning report also prompted the Australian prime minister, John Howard, to announce that he is looking into tightening the relevant legislation.

Hamilton on Tuesday savaged ISPs that claimed server-based content filtering technologies were not feasible.

"The ISPs themselves are actively undermining the government's legislation," he said.

Hamilton also believes ISPs are resisting their call for the implementation of industry-wide filtering because it would eat into their profits.

"The Internet industry has got to be brought back to the real world; they're just like any other industry but they've got away with murder because they've convinced politicians that they've saved the world," he said.

But Marburg says that the onus should be on parents to protect their children from explicit material.

"I believe that parents should supervise their children while using the Internet... it's a parenting responsibility, just like television, videos and magazines," he said.

Marburg described implementing the technology in its current form as "unfeasible" in many ways and dismissed accusations that Internet service providers are interested in safeguarding profits generated through allowing children to access the Internet.

"The support and administration time that's dealt with explaining these issues to parents and responding to complaints probably outweighs those profits," he said.

He says that the blocking technologies are too hard to set up and administer, and they can be bypassed through the use of technologies such as tunneled anonymous proxies.

"If the children are smart enough they can get the material anyway... parents have to remember that kids have been using computers since they were four to six years old," he said.

But Hamilton says he's outraged by this position.

"For industry people to dump it on parents is outrageous," he said, describing the position of ISPs in general as a "commercially driven morality".

Electronic Frontiers Australia, an online civil liberties organisation, also slammed current legislation and recommended that it be repealed, however they stopped short of suggesting that ISP's be forced to implement across the board filtering.


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