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 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 emphasise 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. Behavior protected off-line should be protected online as well, they say.
The rules will be set up according to a framework of principles announced this week 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.
Attorneys general from the various jurisdictions meet today 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 labeling of sites and educational campaigns on Internet use, O'Connor says.
The government said 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 sysd, 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 off other countries in the world, according to industry observers and researchers. O'Connor said that 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 US 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-labeling techniques and codes of practice. Senator Allston will leave tomorrow 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 labeling of content online, you have to have some sort of internationally acceptable guidelines," he says.
The government will be taking comments from the public on the proposal through August 8. The proposal is expected to go before the legislature when its new session begins at the end of August, and the government hopes to have it enacted by the end of the calendar year, O'Connor says.
The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts has a World Wide Web site at http://www.dca.gov.au/. Senator Allston's office can be reached at +61-6-277-7480. The Attorney General's office is at +61-6-277-7300.