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Australia's answer to the Great Firewall of China

'Clean Surf', by Chris JohnstonMuch has been made in recent weeks of the Federal Government's announcement that internet service providers would soon be required to offer a 'clean feed' to their Australian customers, with undesirable sites and content being blocked by default. Civil liberties groups in particular have been up in arms, touting the proposed legislation as nothing short of censorship and likening it to the infamous Great Firewall of China. But is this an erroneous comparison?

Although Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy has been accused of sneaking his legislation in quietly under the radar, the clean feed initiative has long been part of Labor policy. In a media release prior to the 2007 election, Labor stated that, should they win government, they would 'provide a mandatory 'clean feed' internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children' and that ISPs would be required to 'filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)'.

Thus far, the government has been somewhat vague on the finer details of their Clean Feed policy. It is expected that the system will be run along the lines of that already operated by British Telecoms in the UK, with websites being blocked on a report/blacklist basis rather than the notoriously unreliable system of generalised content or keyword filtering. Exactly how this will be implemented and what effect it will have on internet speed, reliability and cost is also uncertain.

However, it is clear that, while the government will make it mandatory for ISPs to provide a clean feed service — so that all consumers will have access to it, regardless of which ISP they are signed up with — they are not making it mandatory for the feed be used by all Australians. Consumers who do not wish to have their internet content filtered or blocked can opt out of the clean feed system.

So, can this really be considered censorship? Surely not. The clean feed policy will ensure the provision of a service which allows consumers, with particular mind to children and minors, to surf the internet without running across content to which they'd rather not be exposed.

When boiled down to bare bones, the argument against censorship is essentially one in support of both freedom of expression and freedom of choice: the choice to read, view, write, create and speak whatever we, as consenting adults, wish within the bounds of the law. Conversely, this should include the choice not to view or read whatever we wish. Shouldn't adults have the choice to access a clean feed on the internet, for themselves and/or the children in their care, if that is their preference?

There is, however, a very real and justifiable fear that people who opt out of the clean feed will be placed on some sort of government or law enforcement watch-list. Australia, while certainly not at the top of the list when it comes to the abuse of its citizens' privacy, doesn't exactly have a spotless record either. Consider our involvement with the controversial Echelon program, as well as the gradual erosion of personal privacy afforded by recent amendments to the Telecommunications (Interceptions and Access) and Anti-Terrorism Acts.

Likewise, there is concern that such legislation might it be the first step on a proverbial slippery slope. Might the clean feed become mandatory in the future? Could blocked content be expanded to include not just the stipulated target of child pornography but also anti-government websites or anything else that moral majority groups such as Family First might deem to be 'inappropriate'? All of this is absolutely possible. But is it being proposed now? Of course not, and the immediate knee-jerk hysteria which has gripped some in the media seems inappropriate at this point.

There is very real censorship taking place in this country at all sorts of insidious levels and the clean feed issue is distracting at best. If the anti-censorship fight is to be taken up in earnest, there are many things that can be done, from regularly viewing the list of films and publications that have been 'refused classification' and lodging appropriate appeals, to petitioning Attorney Generals at both State and Federal levels to lift the bans on non-classified films and publications, to arranging protest screenings and distribution of banned material.

It is worth remembering that people who spend too much time running around in circles and screeching that the sky is falling, will not be taken seriously when all that blue finally does start tumbling down.

Kirstyn McDermottKirstyn McDermott is Vice President of the Australian Horror Writers Association. Her short fiction has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Shadowed Realms, Redsine, Southern Blood, Island and GUD.




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