'It’s a Sad Day in Australia': Government Approves ISP Filters

MELBOURNE—Despite intense opposition from civil libertarians and others, the Australian government has been flirting with the idea of mandating the filtering of sexual and violent content at the ISP level for years. Tuesday, Communication Minister Stephen Conroy brought down the hammer by announcing that the government will introduce legislation next year that will make it the first Western democracy to follow through on its threat to filter the internet—all in the name of protecting the children.

“To think that our government has decided to decide what Australian adults can and can't watch,” Fiona Patten, CEO of the Eros Association and convener of the Australian Sex Party, told AVN. “It is a sad day in Australia.”

Cyber-safety measures announced Tuesday include:

* Introduction of mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused Classification (RC)–rated content.

* A grants program to encourage the introduction of optional filtering by Internet Service Providers, to block additional content as requested by households.

* An expansion of the cyber-safety outreach program run by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Cyber-Safety Online Helpline—to improve education and awareness of online safety.

Conroy also released publicly the Enex Test Laboratory report into the pilot trial of Internet Service Provider (ISP)-level filtering.

“We welcome the constructive input of Australia’s four largest ISPs – Telstra, Optus, iiNet and Primus. These companies came forward to help inform the Government’s approach. Between them these ISPs account for more than 80 percent of internet users in Australia,” Conroy said. “The Government has always maintained there is no silver bullet solution to cyber-safety. That is why we have established a comprehensive range of cyber-safety measures, including funding for 91 additional online Australian Federal Police officers and education.”

Once the law is in place, ISPs will be required to block RC-rated material hosted on overseas servers. RC-rated material includes child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence including rape, and the detailed instruction of crime or drug use. Under related legislation it is already illegal to distribute, sell or make available for hire RC-rated films, computer games and publications, all of which are subject to take-down notices by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) if they are hosted online in Australia.

But Patten says that it is at best disingenuous of the government to imply that only illegal content will be targeted.

“It is very frustrating that most commentators are focusing on child porn and illegal content, because sites like Hustler.com will be blocked and there is a good chance that AVN.com would also have some content that was refused classification (RC) under Australian law, and would need to be blacklisted,” she said. “The Communications Minister states that this proposal is intended to protect young people. So does the Chinese Ministry for Public Security.”

Patten is not alone in her virulent opposition to the plan.

"The government knows this plan will not help Australian kids, nor will it aid in the policing of prohibited material," said Colin Jacobs, vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia. "Given the problems in maintaining a secret blacklist and deciding what goes on it, we're at a loss to explain the minister's enthusiasm for this proposal."

According to a press release issued Tuesday by the Australian Sex Party, the government RC blacklist will mean that 95 percent of the world’s four million adult sites would need to be listed. It also is claiming that the “very vanilla X rating” that that former Prime Minister John Howard imposed on the industry in 2000 is far different from the broader parameters enjoyed by adult sites in Europe and the U.S. The live trial undertaken by the government involved only 1,000 URLs.

“How you can have a filter blocking access to over 4 million sites with over 420 million pages and not slow the internet down, is beyond belief,” said Patten, adding that the filter will include mostly legal depictions of sex acts rather than the child porn and sexual violence being promoted to the press.

"The biggest selling porn movie in the world, Pirates, has been given an RC rating in Australia because it featured an animated dueling scene with two skeletons. It had nothing to do with sex whatsoever," she said. "But under the draconian laws around X rated films it was deemed to be ‘violence’ in an otherwise non violent film. Pirates sold over a quarter of a million copies in its first week on sale in 2005, and remains one of the most popular adult film requests on the internet."

The low threshold will invariably create other problems for the government, said Patten. “Senator Conroy also appears to have ignored the reality that a new classification scheme for classifying websites in Australia will be necessary to cope with the flood of adult website operators who will want to have their sites rated to ensure that they fall below the RC line,” she said.

Patten did applaud the decision by the government not to impose a secondary level filter—an opt-out scheme in which customers would receive a filtered service unless they asked for it to be removed. “The provision of grants to ISPs to develop an optional filtering mode for households that request it is a step in the right direction.”

The legislation will be introduced in parliament in August 2010 and will take a year to implement.