The Australian Government yesterday broke new records for web censorship by requiring the takedown not just of a page containing harmful content, nor even a page linking to harmful content, but a page linking to a link to allegedly harmful content.
The content that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) originally deemed to be inappropriate was to be found on a US site – Abortion TV. The site is political in nature, clearly coming down on the anti-abortion side of that debate – and the page in question features pictures of aborted foetuses.
Back in January of this year, ACMA wrote back to a complainant: "ACMA is satisfied that the internet content is hosted outside Australia, and that the content is prohibited or potential prohibited content.
"The Internet Industry Association (IIA) has a code of practice for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which, among other things, set out arrangements for dealing with such content. In accordance with the code, ACMA has notified the above content to the makers of IIA approved filters, for their attention and appropriate action. The code requires ISPs to make available to customers an IIA approved filter."
Despite this, the link continued to be published by popular news site, Whirlpool. In March, ACMA upped the ante, by sending to Whirlpool’s ISP - Bulletproof Networks - an "interim link-deletion notice", warning them that they were in breach of the law – and that failure to block access to the link in question could cost them $11,000 a day.
Bulletproof pulled the link. This sequence of events was then reported on by Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc (EFA), who describe themselves as "a non-profit national organisation representing Internet users concerned with on-line freedoms and rights".
In a report that included the now infamous link, they wrote: "This demonstrates not only that the blacklist targets a wider range of material than child abuse (where the Minister’s rhetoric has been focused) but also that the lines between art, obscenity and political speech are not as bright and clear as politicians would have us imagine... Viewing or possession [of] RC content is not in itself illegal unless the content falls afoul of some other statute, such as those governing child-abuse material".
They added: "Despite the Minster’s (ridiculous) assertions that he means well and we should take it on faith that the filter will be effective and benign, this latest episode demonstrates how serious run-ins with the censors can be, that it does not only happen to purveyors of the ‘filth’ politicians rail against. These sorts of incidents will multiply as mandatory filtering is introduced, more controversial content is prohibited, and mirroring, linking and circumvention become common."
It was therefore drearily predictable that ACMA would descend on EFA like the proverbial ton of bricks – and lo, yesterday they did exactly that, serving their latest "link-deletion notice" on EFA.
This time, EFA pointed out the cost of this sort of action. They said: "This system, which costs Australian taxpayers millions each year, is clearly unworkable". However, there are also clear political dangers. As they further observed: "If a link to a prohibited page is not allowed, what about a link to a link? At what number of hops does hyperlink become acceptable?"
It is also pretty pointless, as sites such as "Somebody think of the Children", which look at censorship and moral panic in Australia, remain hosted in the US, where they are beyond the reach of Australia's censors.
On this latest evidence, the Australian Government is now light years ahead of the rest of the Western world when it comes to political censorship. Whether a less draconian regime will at some point emerge is now a hot topic for debate amongst Ozzie ISP’s. ®