Last month Reporters Without Borders, the watchdog for press freedom on the internet published its updated list of ‘internet enemy’ countries that ‘restrict online access and harass their netizens‘ as well as the list of countries ‘under surveillance’ that ‘display a disturbing attitude toward the Internet‘.

Internet enemy countries include Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam –  no real surprises there.

However, on the list of ‘countries under surveillance’ is Australia along with Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Australia seems to sit uncomfortably amidst this group of countries where for political or religious reasons you may expect there to be an often less than democratic restriction of freedom of speech. So why has RWB placed Australia on the list?

The explanation is given on the RWB website where they state that:

Under the guise of fighting child pornography, the government wants to set up a filtering system never before seen in a democracy. The State of South Australia has passed a law prohibiting online anonymity in an electoral context.

The page on Australia continues:

A draconian filtering system

After a year of testing conducted by the government in joint cooperation with Australian Internet service providers, Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy reaffirmed, on December 15, 2009, that the government plans to call for a vote on a bill that would impose mandatory filtering of what it considers “inappropriate” websites. The decision to block access to a website would not be made by a judge, but by a government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Such a procedure, without a court decision, does not satisfy the requirements of the rule of law: the ACMA classifies content secretly, compiling a website blacklist by means of unilateral and arbitrary administrative decision-making.

The filtering would target websites featuring “refused classification” (RC) content, a category already applied to the traditional media, and would therefore apply to content completely unrelated to government efforts to combat child pornography, defamation or copyright, thus creating an obvious potential for overblocking. Subjects such as aborigines, abortion, anorexia, or laws governing the sale of marijuana would all risk being filtered, as would media reports or medically related information on these subjects. Moreover, although the government has announced that filtering would be 100% effective – a claim highly disputed by experts – the Wikileaks website has revealed the blacklist of filtered sites that had nothing reprehensible in their content, such as YouTube links, poker games, gay networks, Wikipedia pages, Christian sites, etc.

(end of quote – see full page here)

The debate around government filtering of internet content is raging all over the world and there are obvious cases where restriction of content due to its extremely violent or pornographic nature are required -‘ required’, but still needing careful thought as to what constitutes content that should be filtered and who it is that makes the decisions, and how transparent the whole process is.

The Australian government has leapt into the breach and started to roll out a ‘solution’ without, it seems, having given adequate airing to the debate nor adequate thought to the way their solution would be rolled out. In a poll of 20,000 Australians conducted by Fairfax Media in December 2009,  96% of those polled were strongly opposed to the bill being introduced in Australia. And Google stated its own reservations, calling the filtering system  ‘heavy handed’  and giving rise to ‘genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.’

The internet poses a myriad of problems in terms of government policy, ethics, privacy, censorship and security but a heavy-handed and poorly thought through response to critical issues is not the way to resolve them – otherwise you find yourself  ‘under surveillance’ along with a clutch of countries you’d rather not be keeping that sort of company with.

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