Thursday, 8 November 2007

Online Content and Plans for Censorship in 2008

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) issued a press release on 26 October outlining new plans for Internet content regulation, with responses to be made by 16 November.

As I read it, the intention is to prohibit on the open internet all content which is classified as MA15+ or R18+, including material which is likely to be classified as MA15 or R18+. There would be a requirement relating to "providers of hosting services, live content services, link services and commercial content services ..." However, if these entities have access restrictions (which limit access to adults, or people over 15, as appropriate) in place, they would be allowed to host restricted material. They also intend that there will be a take down procedure so that access can be removed to content that is subject to complaint.

The scope and impact of these plans appears to depend on how much material is classified, what it means that material is "likely to be classified", and the extent to which people complain. It also depends on what is hosted in Australia, and what is hosted overseas - only the former is affected.

One problematical issue is just what would be prohibited. For example, if an imaginary Australian YouTube-style site included material which was likely to be classified as MA15 or R18+, as it does, would any prohibition apply to the whole site, or just to the offending part. It seems most likely that a take down notice would apply to the site rather than individual videos, which has major ramifications for the Internet in Australia.

This was all announced in a press release dated 26 October, with comments due by 16 November - three weeks, in the middle of an election. The announcement received very little publicity.

Another angle. In response to ALIA questions, the ALP has a plan to provide a so-called clean-feed, or requirement for ISPs to provide filtered access for domestic users of the Internet, with the possibility for the user to opt out of the filtered access.
The ALP said "ISP filtering under a Rudd Labor government will be applied to all households (unless they choose to opt-out), schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as libraries."

But it is not at all clear what ISPs would be required to filter out. Would they just have to filter out material which is banned in Australia (RC or X18+) or would they also have to filter out material which is classified as unsuitable for minors or for children under 15, or which is likely to be so classified? (MA15 and R18+). It does appear from Kim Beazley's original statement in March 2006 that ISPs may be obliged to filter out some material which it is legal to view, and it appears that they will take instructions on what to filter from ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority). There are other problems with the policy, too, and many are highlighted in the interesting 36-page critique by EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia).

What does the Coalition say on these issues? In response to the ALIA questionnaire, they pointed to the Prime Minister's announcement on
20 August 2007 of the $189 million Protecting Australian Families Online initiative. The statement on filtering in libraries was much more nuanced. At this stage the Coalition is not in favour of ISP-level filtering, and it is suggested that "The use of filters in libraries needs to be tailored to the circumstances and client profiles of different libraries . . ." Moreover, while libraries are encouraged to work with the Government to install PC-based filters, it is recognised that "legislating the use of content filters by librarians would be a blunt approach that would not be effective, particularly as the regulation of public libraries is generally a matter for state, territory and local governments."

There is a lot to be concerned about here, and no great evidence of having thought through the issues. What do you think?

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