Australians debate national internet filter dubbed the ”Great Aussie Firewall”

December 27, 2008

(ChattahBox) — It seems kind of ironic to find freedom loving Australians at the forefront of a proposed Internet filter dubbed the ”Great Aussie Firewall’.’ The filter in many way seems sensible though would block at least 1,300 Web sites prohibited by the government — mostly child pornography, excessive violence, instructions in crime or drug use and advocacy of terrorism. However consumers, civil-rights activists, engineers, Internet providers and politicians from opposition parties are among the critics that worry about censorship.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy proposed the filter earlier this year, following up on a promise of the year-old Labor Party government to make the Internet cleaner and safer. He told the AP in an e-mail: ”We have laws about the sort of material that is acceptable across all mediums and the Internet is no different. Currently, some material is banned and we are simply seeking to use technology to ensure those bans are working.” Part of the issue though is that the list of prohibited sites, isn’t being made public by the Australian government. Opponents of the filter worry it allows the government or lawmakers to pursue their own online agendas without scrutiny, which seems like a very legitmate concern.

Also internet providers say a filter could slow browsing speeds, and many question whether it would achieve its intended goals. Illegal material such as child pornography is often traded on peer-to-peer networks or chats, which would not be covered by the filter. A filter of this nature only blocks material on public Web sites. But illicit material … is traded on the black market, through secret channels.”

The plan, which would have to be approved by Parliament, has two tiers. A mandatory filter would block sites on an existing blacklist determined by the Australian Communications Media Authority. An optional filter would block adult content.  The latter could use keywords to determine which sites to block, a technology that critics say is problematic. Opponents worry the filter will accidentally block things it’s not meant to block.
A laboratory test of six filters for the Australian Communications Media Authority found they missed 3 percent to 12 percent of material they should have barred and wrongly blocked access to 1 percent to 8 percent of Web sites. The most accurate filters slowed browsing speeds up to 86 percent.

The Australian government has allocated 45 million Australian dollars ($30.7 million) for the filter, the largest part of a four-year, AU$128.5 million ($89 million) cybersafety plan, which also includes funding for investigating online child abuse, education and research. The government has invited Internet providers to participate in a live test expected to be completed by the end of June. Australia’s proposal is less severe than controls in Egypt and Iran, where bloggers have been imprisoned; in North Korea, where there is virtually no Internet access; or in China, which has a pervasive filtering system. Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom have filters, but they are voluntary.


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