The Australian government is already planning to block legal internet content when its "great firewall" eventually goes live. That is the fear expressed by some of the most trenchant critics of this scheme, including Senators Simon Birmingham (for the Liberal Party) and Scott Ludlam (for the Greens) following another shift in emphasis by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in evidence to the Environment, Communications and the Arts committee on Monday.
The Australian government launched a trial of its filtering software on 11 February, in association with a number of ISPs, including Primus, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1. The focus for this trial was "illegal sites" under the Broadcasting Services Act.
Last October, in evidence to the committee (pdf), Senator Conroy was at pains to stress that only material that is currently illegal would be blocked under "mandatory filtering". Given the chance to repeat this assertion on Monday, the Senator did not do so, stating instead that although the trial was based on sites hosting illegal content, decisions on what would actually be filtered would be taken "on the basis of the trial".
A part of the problem lies in the piecemeal way in which material is censored in Australia. Policing of online material is carried out by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. A spokeswoman for ACMA addressed the committee and explained that they would seek to block "any online content that is classified RC or X18+ by the classification board—I will come to what that means in a moment—and content which is classified R18+ and not subject to a restricted access system".
In practice, that definition can include actual sex between consenting adults, as well as material that might quite legally be bought in a newsagent or adult shop. However, the focus for their blacklist remains child abuse material ACMA recently sealed an agreement with the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), giving them access to the IWF’s block list.
El Reg spoke with Senator Ludlam. He was not sure that the government had shifted the goalposts – as they had never really said where they were situated. His major concern is that although the Government are testing with a current blacklist of around 1300 websites, the fact that they are testing a much larger list seems to indicate the direction of their thinking on the issue.
He said: "The ACMA list takes in 1300 sites: the broader list extends to 10,000. But there is also talk of dynamic filtering, according to content and categories: the use of computer-driven algorithms to establish categories, rather than any human insight into what may be blocked.
"That is when under and over-blocking occurs – and our real concern is the way in which they are testing such material whilst being ambiguous as to their real objectives."
Senator Birmingham also condemned the government’s lack of clarity. He worried that a scheme that was originally positioned as being about child safety had evolved, since the election, into something much broader.
"Since the election, Senator Conroy has mixed his language between those earlier versions related to child safety and far more restrictive comments about illegal content," he said. "It is little wonder so many concerns are running rife about the Government’s intentions.
"Most recently, in Senate estimates this week, Senator Conroy again shifted his language, moving to talk about the comparable classification codes for other media and how they are interpreted in regard to the existing ACMA blacklist. This does present a possibility of capturing content that is restricted (ie – to adults) but not illegal.
"What is desperately needed in this policy area is clarity. Senator Conroy must explain precisely what it is that he intends to restrict access to. His failure to do so is the cause of most of his troubles, with many people justifiably assuming the worst.
"While I have grave misgivings about the effectiveness and value of any mandatory ISP level filtering, at a minimum he must confirm that banned content will purely be that which would be illegal for anyone to view in any medium. The internet must not burdened with censorship that is even tighter than that in other mediums. To do so would be even greater lunacy than mandatory ISP filtering is in the first place."
At least in this week’s hearings, Senator Conroy dropped his earlier attempts to tar those opposed to his plans as closet paedophiles with an interest in looking at paedophilic material. "There is a very strong case for blocking RC or ‘refuse classification’ material that includes child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act," he said.
The change in Government language was attributed by Senator Ludlam at least in part to the very public campaign drawing attention to the government’s plans and dragging the issue out into the harsh light of day. He said: "This can only be a good thing, and for this, thanks are owed to the online community, who have been quick to respond and determined in their reaction." ®