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Filters, fixes and flimsy in new Net policy

NetAlertThe Internet has revolutionised business, brought families together across the geographic divide and networked like-minded groups for good causes. But it has also delivered an unprecedented flood of pornography and graphic violence into our homes, schools and offices. Just how to deal with it presents a problem for parents, teachers and governments.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan's latest plan is to give every family in the country a free Internet filter program for their computer. She described it as "the single biggest commitment to protecting families online in the history of the Internet in Australia". The government is also putting more money into its NetAlert advisory service for parents and will roll out a community education program - all at a cost of $117 million. But the families lobby, Labor, Family First and many government MPs are adamant the real solution lies with filtering at the Internet service provider (ISP) level.

They argue that it would be better for children to receive a "clean feed" from the service provider than have parents, many of whom are computer illiterate, configure filters on their home computers. But while the government is watching the results of trials of ISP level filtering in Tasmania, it is reluctant to force ISPs to act. Senator Coonan argues there is much evidence against ISP-level filtering.

She says it slows Internet access down considerably, it cannot deal with unsavoury goings-on in chat rooms and other parts of the Internet, and it is costly. What's more, it would encourage parents to take a hands-off approach, under the belief that their children can navigate the net free of any disturbing images or dodgy characters wanting to chat with them.

$116.6 million to Protect Australian Families Online"You wouldn't send your child out to ride their bike without a helmet, or let them travel in a car without a seat belt, so why would we let them surf the Internet without the protection of an effective filter?" she says. But Labor communications spokesman Stephen Conroy says 'clean feed' technology is working in Britain, Norway and Sweden and a Beazley government would implement such a scheme.

He points to independent advice given to the government which said it causes a delay of only 10 milliseconds - an insignificant blip in the scheme of things - and there is no extra cost to the consumer.
Senator Conroy says the minister is ignoring the fact that two in three households did not use filters - either for reasons of cost or lack of computer literacy.

At least 60 Government MPs have come out in support of ISP level filtering and have lobbied the minister to keep an open mind on the issue. While there is evidence that Internet porn is becoming a serious problem, the law is slow to recognise the fact. In Brisbane just this month (July) a man was jailed for six months after collecting more than 52,000 pornographic computer images of children.

The prosecutor told the court it was one of the worst cases of its kind in Queensland legal history because of the number and type of images involved - including infants being involved in sex acts and children involved in bestiality.

But a six-month jail term was given because of a number of mitigating factors - there was no commercial aspect to the crime, the man cooperated with police and was suffering depression at the time.

NetAlertThe case raises question marks over the effectiveness of the law. Recent figures published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority showed it received 293 complaints about pornography on the Internet from January to April and acted on 236 of them. Of the total, only 12 web pages which attracted take-down notices were posted in Australia, with the remainder appearing on overseas sites.

ACMA cannot make an overseas web host take down an item, but rather asks the makers of Internet filter software to block the sites. For Australian-hosted items, ACMA can issue a take-down notice and if the content host does not comply it faces a maximum penalty per day of $5,500 for an individual and $27,500 for a corporation. Potentially criminal content, such as child pornography, is referred to the federal police.

But even this seems to be ineffective.
The real solution would seem to be a broad-based approach to cracking down on pornography at every level:
* Boosting global efforts to crack down on those who initially produce it and post it on the net
* Nabbing those who download it;
* Filtering content at the ISP level;
* Educating parents and teachers about desktop-level filter programs and providing them free of charge to all.

But perhaps the most important step would be to give children a positive self-image and set of values, and teach them about the productive uses of one of the most revolutionary technologies in recent decades.



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