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.

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