The Slippery Slope Towards Internet Censorship Continues

The Australian Government continued down the slippery slope towards internet censorship yesterday by introducing a bill to give the Australian Federal Police the power to nominate terrorism or crime related websites for filtering.

In The Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle expressed concerns that the Police Commissioner might use these new powers to call for Greenpeace’s website to be filtered – which really should raise more questions about the activities of Greenpeace than the value of the legislation.

Nevertheless, there is slightly less to this bill than it seems at first glance. The internet industry code currently governing online content already provides for filtering of pornographic and offensive content. But this filtering is voluntary, not mandatory.

At the moment, internet service providers who want to be designated “family friendly” by the Internet Industry Association have to offer their customers one of a range of approved PC or server side commercial filters. And these filters are periodically updated according to an Australian Communications and Media Authority black list. Yesterday’s bill would merely allow the AFP to add terrorism or crime related sites to that black list. But why would aspiring terrorists and criminals willingly install a family friendly filter onto their PC?

A lot rides on how the Internet Industry Association rewrites its codes of practise in the light of the government’s NetAlert scheme. Under NetAlert, all internet service providers will be compelled to offer consumers the choice between an unfiltered internet connection or a server-side filtered one.

Again, terrorists are unlikely to choose a filtered internet connection. The government’s new legislation only really makes sense if the unfiltered product is not going to be truly ‘unfiltered’. That the internet content bill was introduced quietly yesterday morning does not inspire confidence that the government plans to leave our internet connections alone. And it’s worth remembering that the Labor Party has for a long time promised mandatory server side filters if they win government.

Quite aside from the internet censorship issue, this bill highlights a disturbing regulatory trend – governments delegating the policing of the internet to the communications industry. Many of the measures canvassed by the inquiry into social networking sites would do just that. Even outside the high-technology sector, counterterrorism and anti money laundering regulation in the financial sector compels firms to police their own customers.

Particularly in the communications sector, these sorts of regulatory burdens can only add to costs for consumers.