Rogers bill killed off - but Australians press on with theirs

Trevor Rogers' Technology and Crimes Reform Bill is finally dead - killed off after three years on the recommendation of Parliament's Commerce select committee. Infotech minister Maurice Williamson has praised the ISP Code of Practice as a viable alternative to Rogers' 'unsustainable' bill - but the Australian government is pressing ahead with a similar proposal to make ISPs criminally responsible for the content of the Internet.

Trevor Rogers' Technology and Crimes Reform Bill is finally dead - killed off after three years on the recommendation of Parliament's Commerce select committee.

Infotech minister Maurice Williamson has praised the ISP Code of Practice as a viable alternative to Rogers' "unsustainable" bill - but the Australian government is pressing ahead with a similar proposal to make ISPs criminally responsible for the content of the Internet.

In speaking to the bill, Williamson said that "while the supply of objectionable material such as child pornography over the Internet is abhorrent, this Bill would not have provided effective control or prevention.

"If anything, the bill had the potential to produce confusing judgements, make enforcement difficutl and in hindsight would be viewed as a quick fix that had no sustainability."

Williamson said the use of existing legislation such as the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act along with the recently-adopted Code of Practice was a "far better" option than the Rogers bill.

"Self regulation such as the New Zealand Code of Practice is the most practical solution to stem pornography and other objectionable material. Most New Zealand ISPs played a part in writing the code and I trust all will want to sign up to it."

The introductrion of the code was a sign that the local industry is "coming of age and acting responsibly towards the community," Wiliamson said.

Meanwhile, the Australian government is pushing forward with a proposal to regulate material on the Internet and to back up the bans with penalties aimed at online service providers.

The target of the Australian proposal includes pornography, material inciting racial hatred and information that could be used in illegal activities such as making bombs. The proposal is designed to promote self-regulation within the industry, with oversight by federal, state and territory governments, according to its backers.

Government officials emphasised that material accessed through online services should not be subject to more onerous regulations than are “off-line” items such as books, films and computer games. Behaviour protected off-line should be protected online as well, they say.

The rules will be set up according to a framework of principles announced yesterday by Senator Richard Allston, who is also the minister for communications and the arts, and by the Australian attorney-general, Daryl Williams. Under the framework, state and territorial governments will be responsible for the classification of content, while the federal government’s role will be to impose a code of practice on service providers.

Attorney-generals from the various jurisdictions have met to discuss the matter. The federal government will be looking for a uniform, national approach to content.

The framework is intended to encourage online service providers to develop codes of practice regarding online content, in consultation with the Australian Broadcast Authority. Under the framework, service providers will be compelled to address complaints about content, and failing that the ABA will investigate and if necessary pursue the matter through the courts.

“We haven’t yet determined the level of the penalties,” says Terry O’Connor, a spokesman for Senator Allston. “But we don’t want to set them too high” and thus inhibit the favourable effect the Internet is expected to have on Australia’s economy, he says. The government expects that service providers will make use of safeguards such as filtering software, effective labelling of sites and educational campaigns on Internet use, O’Connor says.

The government says that the proposed arrangements recognise that online service providers often are not in a position to be aware of all material transmitted through their service and cannot be held responsible in every case for material they have not created.

At the same time, the government says, there are good commercial reasons for online service providers to be on the lookout for pornographic or other material offensive to the public. “The takeup of the Internet in Australia has not been as high as it could have been because of concerns about access to undesirable forms of material,” O’Connor says. Concern has been voiced by a number of organisations including church, family and education groups, he says.

Australia’s adoption of the Internet has actually been quite high, relative to that of other countries in the world, according to industry observers and researchers. O’Connor says 40% of households have used the Internet at home, at school or at the office and that 31% of households have PCs, second only to the US.

If the proposal becomes law, Australia will join the ranks of nations such as Germany and Singapore, which have taken the lead in defining the boundaries of online decency and establishing legal frameworks for combating smut and hate groups on the Internet.

In the US, by contrast, the Supreme Court recently struck down a nationwide decency law on the grounds that it was vague in a way that would inhibit the rights of adults to free speech.

The Australian government says it will be seeking international cooperation on content-labelling techniques and codes of practice. Senator Allston is on a three-week trip to Japan, the US, the UK, Ireland, Malaysia and Singapore during which online content and practices will be a topic of discussion, O’Connor says.

“If you’re talking about labelling of content online, you have to have some sort of internationally acceptable guidelines,” he says.

The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts has a World Wide Web site at www.dca.gov.au/.

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