The Australian federal government has abandoned plans to enact legislation which would enable the implementation of a controversial mandatory national Internet filter, opting instead to apply a ban to accessing a finite list of websites.
The highly-contested, original plans – initiated in 2007 by then-PM Kevin Rudd – involved implementing a filter which would block access to websites deemed ‘RC’ (refused classification) such as those promoting extreme violence, rape or child abuse.
The real dangers of the plan, however, quickly became evident – what would be censored and who would control what was censored? Other criticisms inevitably followed concerning issues of transparency and accountability, and many said the plan was impractical and costly to carry out.
Experts argued that it would not even serve its purpose, as those who wanted to could bypass the technical aspects of Internet filtering in a process known as censorship circumvention while others would have access to innocuous sites blocked.
The plans also raised the alarm with international non-government organisation Reporters Without Borders, who added Australia to its list of ‘Countries under surveillance’ in 2009, where it appeared alongside more politically repressive countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
In its 2011 report on 'Internet Enemies', the organisation expressed “concern at the government’s readiness to create a repressive Internet filtering system which would be managed in a non-transparent manner by a government agency based on very broad criteria”.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy today confirmed to Fairfax Media that the government will instead use a simpler approach and ban a finite blacklist of child abuse sites identified by Interpol, which is regularly updated.
Civil rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) through its Open Internet campaign, was one of many that campaigned vigorously against the policy, instead advocating more proportionate technical responses.
“Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with these challenges, such as the government’s now-abandoned mandatory Internet filter, are not appropriate, nor likely to be effective in terms of outcomes or value for money,” the group claimed today.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are among a number of countries who use national Internet filters, but they also publish detailed information about their practices. A notification is displayed to the user when attempting to access a blocked website.
In contrast, countries such as China send users a false error indication. China blocks access at the router level, preventing the user’s IP address from making further HTTP requests for a time, which appears to the user as time-out error with no explanation.
The European Court of Justice has previously ruled that Internet filtering undermines freedom of information, and as such Internet filtering is illegal under EU law.