Australian Internet censorship likely to be costly

The Australian federal senate has passed the controversial Internet content legislation, which is now almost certain to become law. The Senate gave the thumbs up to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services Bill) 1999, which will see the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) regulating, monitoring and blocking 'pornographic, violent or other offensive' Web sites, newsgroups and databases.

The Australian federal senate has passed the controversial Internet content legislation, which is now almost certain to become law.

The Senate gave the thumbs up to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services Bill) 1999, which will see the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) regulating, monitoring and blocking what the federal government calls "pornographic, violent or other offensive" Web sites, newsgroups and databases.

The controversial bill, the subject of heated public debate in recent months, was passed after lengthy discussions in the senate. It was given crucial support by independent senators Brian Harradine and Mal Colston. The Labor party, Democrats and Greens voted against the legislation after failing in a bid to enforce amendments.

Under the law, the ABA would be responsible for regulating Internet content.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for debate, where it is expected to be passed without difficulties.

Peter Upton, executive director of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), made his views known to the Senate Committee reviewing the legislation. He said the AIIA would rather the Senate had not passed the bill.

"While we support the desirability of protecting minors from the full confrontational violence of society, we're very dubious that technical filtering measures work by themselves," Upton said. "We wanted to see an emphasis on educating parents about the availability of user-level software filters. The (Australian) legislature seems not to want to believe that parents ultimately have to accept responsibility."

At first glance, the bill could be perceived as draconian, but Upton said governments in the U.S., Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and China had all taken differing measures to control Internet content.

"Part of that is the fact that all over the world, governments are trying to respond to this concerned citizenry saying 'there's some pretty nasty stuff out there,'" he said. "They had a go in the United States in the Communications Decency act about 18 months ago. It got struck down in the High Court because it took the view it was a breach of the constitutional right to the freedom of speech."

Under the British system, content providers can be "thumped" by police if they refuse to take down offensive material, Upton said.

"Singapore had a go and it's a system that's widely regarded as a joke," he said. The law in that country did not include corporate Web sites and was limited to the three sole ISPs (Internet service providers) in Singapore, Upton said.

The difficulty in monitoring the almost 700 ISPs in Australia would lead to increased costs, he warned.

"I would like to think people are thoroughly cognisant of the costs and the fact that could be against the national interest," Upton said. "The cost of installing effective blocking measures could almost double the capital costs of the infrastructure for an ISP."

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