Net porn censorship plans worry academics

May 14, 1999

A decision by the Australian government to introduce censorship laws covering the internet has alarmed the nation's universities and internet service providers which fear the consequences of attempts to block content which is not under their control.

Under the government's proposed legislation, which was to be debated in Parliament this week, it will be an offence for a provider to allow access to illegal material. A "Net Watch" will be set up to receive complaints about internet content and, after being warned, ISPs will have to remove material rated X or refused classification if they host it for a third party.

As yet unspecified controls will be introduced for "adult" material hosted in Australia to make sure it is not seen by children.

Uncertainty about how the rules are to be implemented and what penalties may yet be imposed have generated outcries among ISPs who fear they will have to act as watchdogs and spend huge sums on new equipment to block material or monitor that passing through their networks or cached in their systems.

Academics and the Australian Internet Industry Association have protested to the government at the scope of the new rules. The Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association described the minister for communications, Richard Alston, who is determined to have the legislation passed, as a "King Canute attempting to hold back the tide".

The association said attempts to block material from overseas would not work. But Mr Alston said more and more Australian children were gaining access to the internet and something had to be done to provide protection against pornography.

"The bottom line for the government is if we don't put in the best effort possible to get some of this stuff off the net, we will be irresponsible to the Australian public," he said.

The senate set up a select committee to examine internet pornography after pressure from Tasmanian independent senator Brian Harradine, whose vote the government needs to pass legislation through the Upper House.

Industry, consumer groups and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation have warned the committee that blocking offensive or illegal material could have adverse consequences, depending on the exact methods used.

Greg Watson, a research fellow at Monash University, said universities could be required to block access to content deemed prohibited and that the only feasible way would be to use some form of automated filtering system. But evidence from Australia and overseas showed such systems blocked out a significant proportion of innocent sites.

"What was once an open and challenging environment for free expression will become a narrow, restricted one that is forced to conform to the current moral climate," Dr Watson said. "Does the community not perceive this as a threat to academic freedom?"

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