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Australian ISPs "On Trial" as Censorship Law Rolls On

The Australian Internet industry was warned in the Federal Senate that it is "on trial" for its behaviour in opposing a bill that would restrict access to Internet content.

The Senator issuing the warning was Brian Harradine, an independent from Tasmania who holds the balance of power in the upper house and intends to vote for the bill. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 was under extended discussion until late last night.

"The ABA [Australian Broadcasting Authority] is really on trial, and so is the Internet industry," said Senator Harradine. "I hope there is cooperation to see that this measure does work."

The bill charges the ABA to act as censor for the Internet, meaning that if any Australian complained to the authority about a particular site or page which was not rated, the ABA could deem its content not suitable for viewing and force ISPs to take down the site if it is hosted in Australia or block access to it if it is hosted overseas. If the ISP does not comply, it would face fines of AUS$27,500 (US$18,100) per page.

This week's second reading of the bill in the Senate follows a fiery committee hearing at which representatives of the Internet industry argued vehemently against the bill, saying it was imposible to implement.

During the four-hour debate, the Liberal government introduced amendments which would tighten up the legislation even further, according to information which opposition Labour party Senator Kate Lundy gave to an industry e-mail list.

Senator Harradine said he would vote for the bill, but told the Senate that the legislation did not follow the recommendations of previous Senate committees "on the content to be regulated, or the method of regulation."

He listed amendments he would like to make, including the appointment of a "specific online content regulator" which would not be part of the ABA, and the introduction of a licensing scheme for ISPs that might include obligations to facilitate censorship as a condition of the license, or as a condition of a compulsory code of practise.

"For example, they ought to have an obligation to provide their customer with access to filtering technologies at both the PC level and in the carriage infrastructure," the Senator said.

The bill is now expected to go to committee for further discussion, but it was not clear at time of publication whether the latest government amendments would be voted in.