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Australia censors the Net

Remember the CDA in America? The censorship law found to be unconstitutional and eventually laughed out of court...
Written by Gordon Finlayson, Contributor

Remember the CDA in America? The censorship law found to be unconstitutional and eventually laughed out of court... The West probably thought it had escaped draconian legislation online. Not so. Australia is in the middle of a censorship war that could get nasty...

After months of controversy, the Broadcasting (Online Services) Amendment Act has passed through Australian parliament and is on its way into the Australian statute books.

Despite the furore, the man behind the bill, Information Technology Minister, Senator Richard Alston, maintains it won't have a negative effect on the industry. The passing of the legislation puts Australia in the same league as countries like Saudi Arabia and Singapore that also have censorship laws for the Internet.

Under the regulations, the Australian Broadcasting Authority will have the power to order ISPs to remove offensive or illegal material from their servers. ISPs that ignore the ABA face fines of up to $27,500 (£16,770) per day. The ABA will also liase with the industry over the development of industry codes of practice to ensure that offensive or illegal material is not accessible by Internet users. It is expected will involve some sort of content filtering regime.

Although the law has passed through parliament, exact details of the workings of the bill has yet to be worked out Senator Alston told ZDNet Australia Wednesday. The Minister said the fine detail would be left up to the ABA and the industry. "The bill calls for a code of practice that will be developed by the industry, something that many in the industry were already trying to put together, this legislation just gives them the impetus to put it into action," Alston said.

Alston noted provisions included in the bill to ensure it would not unnecessarily burden the industry. Alston believes it would not effect the development of e-commerce in Australia. "There are provisions in the bill to ensure that whatever measures are employed there is a balance between what is technically feasible and the cost of those measures."

Despite Alston's positive attitude, critics called for his resignation. Online civil liberties group, Electronic Frontiers Australia said the Senator should quit the IT portfolio. "He is ill-equipped to provide a leadership role in the era of the information economy since he has alienated himself from the very industry upon which that economy must be built," EFA Executive Director Darce Cassidy stated. "The digital age requires a Minister with a grasp of the portfolio and an eye for the future, not a man who can't tell the difference between the Internet and TV."

Cassidy said the bill was politically motivated and ignored protests made by the industry. "This Bill is no more than a cheap political stunt. Senator Alston has shown he is unfit to hold the IT portfolio. He has ignored community concerns about free speech and privacy, dismissed advice from his own department, the CSIRO and industry experts, and has failed to comprehend the nature of the Internet.

Since the bill was first flagged in March this year, there has been significant debate in the Australian Internet industry. Organisations such as the Internet Industry Association, The Australian Computer Society, Connect.com.au and the Australian Internet Society have all expressed concern about the amendments.

Last month, the EFA organised a series of well attended protest rallies around the country, while other protest actions are continuing online. Local programming site 2600.org.au has developed a guide that advises Internet users how to evade online censorship. Electronic arts site SystemX recently replaced its home page with a series of images designed to challenge the laws.

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