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Australian Senator Stephen Conroy is behind the proposal for a ban of Web sites.(Credit: Web site for Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital EconomyDeputy Leader of the Government in the Senate)

The Australian government has proposed to ban Web sites…but won’t tell its citizens which sites are on the list

The Financial Times reported that “more than 40 countries” censor the Web, the most severe of which are China, Iran, Vietnam, Syria, Burma and Tunisia.  Will Australia itself soon be joining these notorious violators of Internet freedoms?

Not if Google, Yahoo!, the U.S. government and other players have any influence. They are all speaking out against the Australian government’s recent push to restrict Internet freedoms.

Content that would be restricted includes “actual sexual activity, child pornography, depictions of bestiality, material containing excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use, and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act,” the Australian government’s Web site wrote.

The blocking of child pornography is understandable as child pornography is illegal in most countries, including the United States.  However, since one man’s “excessive violence” is another’s patty cake game how is this all going to be measured and who will make the judgements? That all will be, apparently, kept secret by the government as well. As NEWS.com.au reported, the government is also planning to block a secret blacklist of Web sites that won’t be made public.  The private blacklist is causing many journalists and bloggers to question what will be blocked and if the block will allow the Australian government to ultimately control what Australians are exposed to?

“Adopting a mandatory screening system would make Australia one of the strictest Internet regulators among the world’s democracies, and the proposal has put the country on the Reporters Without Borders annual ‘Enemies of the Internet’ list,” as the Australian newspaper The Advertiser reported.

This comes just days after Google ignored Chinese restrictions on its site and refused to continue censoring searches.

The commotion is about what exactly falls in that RC category.  Ars Technica reported anything deemed “socially and politically controversial” could be included. The blacklist put together by the communications watchdog has not been made public, raising concerns that governments can impose censorship without proper oversight,” NEWS.com.au reported.

Even though Senator Stephen Conroy, the Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is reported to say the Australian government needs to be more transparent in monitoring the Internet, he also said “making the list public would undermine what the Internet filter policy was designed to achieve,” NEWS.com.au reported.

NEWS.com.au reported that Conroy argued against providing what Web sites are banned because by giving the URL address of a banned Web site, he’s providing the Web site. The news organization also reported that Conroy told ABC Radio, “When you publish a list of titles of books that are banned, or movies that are banned, you don’t give access to the materials by producing that list.  The problem when you produce a list of URLs is you are actually giving the address of where to go and look.”

But by not revealing what Web sites are banned, isn’t the Australian government essentially taking control of what its citizens are exposed to?

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As The Financial Times reported, “the Web is fast being carved up by national laws and regulations, whether aimed at suppressing opinion, tackling pornography or identity theft, as countries around the world learn the techniques of control. Far from being a universal medium, the World Wide Web is becoming Balkanised – as users are now learning.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Michael Tran told the Associated Press, “Our main message, of course, is that we remain committed to advancing the free flow of information which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally,”

Another U.S. State Department spokesman, Noel Clay, said “We do not discuss the details of specific diplomatic exchanges, but can say that in the context of that ongoing relationship, we have raised our concerns on this matter with Australian officials,” Australia’s daily newspaper The Australian reported.

Last week, Conroy’s department published submissions to the government on the matter.

Yahoo!’s submission to the Australian government on the matter said that while Yahoo! supports protecting child safety on the Internet, that:

“Mandatory filtering of all RC material could block content with a strong social, political and/or educational value such as: safe injecting and other harm minimisation websites, Euthanasia discussion forums, a video on creating graffiti art, anti-abortion websites, gay and lesbian forums which discuss sexual experiences, explorations of the geo-political causes of terrorism where specific terrorist organisation, and propaganda is cited as reference material.

Clearly some of this content is controversial and, depending on one’s political beliefs, rather offensive however we maintain that there is enormous value in this content being available to encourage debate and inform opinion.”

Google wrote:

“Our primary concern is that the scope of content to be filtered is too wide. At Google we have a bias in favour of people’s right to free expression. While we recognise that protecting the free exchange of ideas and information cannot be without some limits, we believe that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. Some limits, like child porno-graphy, are obvious. No Australian wants that to be available – and we agree. Google, like many other Internet companies, has a global, all-product ban against child sexual abuse material, which is illegal in almost every country, and we filter out this content from our search results and remove it from our products. But moving to a mandatory ISP level filtering regime with a scope that goes well beyond such material is heavy handed and can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.”

Other submissions are available on the Australian government Web site.

 

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Australian Govt. plans to ban Web sites…but won’t say which ones

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