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Friday, 9 November 2012

Persistance gives a win to Aust net freedom supporters

In a major industry development, Australia's communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has announced that a long-debated move to use a secret list to filter the internet in the country, has been scrapped. It's an interesting back-down, which Conroy spins as a "successful outcome", presumably coming at the end of lengthy discussions with industry organisations, his Labor Party's partner, the Greens, and possibly others. It seems to me, from reading the story, that this decision to scrap the contentious secret list was made following discussions but the story does not say whether that is the case and, if it was, who the key discussions were held with.

Instead of a secret list of proscribed sites that would block access to material online ("The government argued that laws governing material on the internet should be no different to those that applied to printed content") the government will pass requests to ISPs via the police so that only child exploitation material will be blocked from access by Australian web users. There is pretty much universal agreement in the community that access to such material should be impossible. Not only is the material abhorrent due to the fact that, in order to make it, children are being abused around the world. It is also undesirable for such material to be accessible to Australian web users due to the fact that it is illegal to view it here, and has been since 2005. The new regulation removes the ability from the majority of Australians to view such material, and thus also distances web users in the country from the risk of accidentally stumbling upon it. It is easy to find such material without deliberately looking for it, so the government's shift removes a potentially life-changing risk from people's lives. This must be welcomed.

The secret proscribed list debate dates back to when the previous Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, reached the prime minister's office in 2007. One other thing that has long characterised the debate has been an almost-universal rejection of mandatory internet filtering by the IT industry, and by serious infotech users. Those close to the industry have aggressively campaigned against mandatory filtering for years and years, making the issue potentially toxic for the government, which has now gingerly moved away from its original plan. The plan to issue requests to ISPs to block child abuse material is a compromise, there is no doubt about it, and as the Fairfax story linked to above shows, some of the organisations involved in the debate, specifically those aligned with the Christian lobby, have expressed regret at the government's new stance.

So what this episode shows is how prolongued resistance from both the IT industry and the vocal, informal IT lobby that is active online, can cause governments to alter even the most solidly-backed legislative plans. People who work with infotech or who admit to a keen interest in it have consistently expressed a deep distrust of a government-held secret list of proscribed sites. There were even leaks showing that sites containing completely innocuous content had been included in the list, which further eroded the government's credibility in the matter. I think that this whole episode shows that, in Australia as in the US, there is a deep-seated suspicion of government intervention in the workings of the internet. Serious web users are committed to ensuring a free web and are very aware of international rankings on net freedom that appear from time to time. The resistance of such people to the government's planned secret list has certainly been a factor contributing to Conroy's announcement today.

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