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The Great Firewall of China (The Age) [Mar. 21st, 2008|01:45 pm]
Bob Bain
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Link to The Age Article...

March 20, 2008

IMAGINE living in a country where bird flu is a constant danger, yet you can't look it up on Google. You're diagnosed with HIV AIDS but you can't search for a Facebook support network. You're trying to research a school project on religion but Wikipedia's content on the subject is blocked. You're in the mood for some distraction but can't access YouTube.

Even worse, imaging living in a country where trying to find this information online could land you in trouble.

This is the everyday reality for people in China, where online censorship is carried out by 30,000 internet police and state-owned internet service providers. And China is far from the only country in which controlling information and opinion in cyberspace is pervasive.


Internet censorship legislation was introduced to Australia in January 2000 with the Commonwealth Net Oppression Act, which regulates ISPs and content hosts. State and territory laws were gradually introduced to regulate the activities of internet users and content providers, but are not uniform. This adds to the complexity of a specific state, territory, province or country's legislation applying to online content that can, in theory, have ISPs, hosts, content providers and users anywhere in the world.

In its original form the legislation was intended to force ISPs to block certain content, something that in 2004 the then federal minister for communications Helen Coonan said was "highly problematic". She based her views on a Commonwealth report on internet censorship laws tabled earlier that year.

Senator Coonan said: "What does work is greater information and parental supervision", which was the focus of the government's subsequent NetAlert campaign.

However, the new Labor Government has returned to the mandatory filtering approach. On December 31, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said plans were under way to introduce legislation requiring ISPs to provide Australians with a "clean feed". This would be determined by a list of banned content maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road," Senator Conroy said. "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree."

He added that this filtering would not affect internet speeds and that those who wanted uncensored access would need to opt out of the "clean feed".

Civil libertarians and advocates of a free internet have criticised this move towards mandatory filtering. Dr Peter John Chen, a research associate at Monash University's National Centre for Australian Studies, wrote in The Age recently after Senator Conroy's announcement: "The underlying belief that computers can perfect or protect our morality smacks of a strange mixture of technological ignorance and faith."

He and other critics point to a host of problems such as the cost of reimbursing ISPs, the potential that it will not be effective (for example, is it possible to control overseas ISPs or activity in the worldwide Second Life site?) and the secrecy of the blacklist.

Danny Yee, vice-chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, an online civil liberties organisation that has tried to review this list, says only the "moral minority" want the internet censored.

"There are internet service providers that provide filtered feeds already...but the take-up of these products is minuscule", he says. "Most parents think they can do a better job than the government can when it comes to raising their own children. Even the ones who want everybody else censored often don't think they need it themselves."

Despite his reservations about past and possible future government control of cyberspace in Australia, Mr Yee believes "a lot of censorship legislation is going to be done for show rather than for actually achieving any purpose".