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Australian Govt Clashes With ISPs Over Censorship

The Australian government is expected to face a hostile reception Tuesday night from Internet industry representatives as its content censorship legislation is debated at what promises to be a fiery Senate committee hearing.

The Internet Industry Association (IIA) is expected to be the harshest critic in its submission to the hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Information Technologies on the the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999.

The bill sets out a censorship regime for Internet service providers that will be based on a "black list" of sites, decided upon by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), that have to be blocked or ISPs will face fines of up to AUS$27,500 (US$17,600) per day, per site.

Members of the general public will be able to complain to the ABA about any site, either in Australia or overseas. If the ABA deems it to be rated X (adult) or RC (refused classification) ISPs have to block the site, if it is in Australia, or block it if "technically feasible" if it is hosted internationally.

Those sites that are rated R (restricted) which do not have adult verification mechanisms in place will also have to be censored by Australian ISPs.

Local providers have been sent into uproar by public suggestions by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Richard Alston, that a solution to the problem might be installing proxy filtering software, despite the performance and cost problems the providers say this would cause.

The ISP community, represented by the IIA, had been working with the government to develop a code of practice which would obviate the need for such harsh legislation, but without warning the government released the bill last week just after the inaugural Australian ISPCON conference in Melbourne.

Most of the heavyweights attended ISPCON, including the entire board of the IIA, but tonight will be the first chance they get to publicly debate the bill with the government.

"Our message to the government is that such steps are not available. Unfortunately there are no technically feasible steps available to ISPs to prevent users from accessing content [which] are 'commercially viable,'" said IIA executive director Peter Coroneos. "We do not think requiring ISPs to 'prevent access' to particular sites can be part of any such scheme."

In addition to Senator Alston, anger from the ISP community has been directed towards independent Senator Brian Harradine, who holds the balance of power in the Senate until July.

Senator Harradine has been an active campaigner on moral issues in relation to the Internet, and most commentators have attributed the sudden appearance of the bill as attempts by the ruling Liberal government to win Harradine's favour to get its new tax laws passed.

In a speech in the Senate on Friday, Senator Alston urged the debate on the Bill to be finished by 11 May, which is the date set by the government to deliver the report of the Senate Select Committee.

"We are talking here about filtering and blocking technologies or guessing engines or other mechanisms that will enable you to identify sites and to exclude them from the universe," Senator Alston said. Senator Harradine hinted that he would ask for some changes to the Bill in his speech.

"I am not happy about some provisions in the legislation, and I will be very interested to hear what the department has to say about those particular provisions," Senator Harradine said.

Earlier in the week, Harradine had said in the Senate that "whoever invented email should be strung up" because he was getting as many as 1,200 per day.



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