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Australia Struggles to be a Democratic Censor

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David Silversmith
David Silversmith

The Internet is filled with fabulous resources but unfortunately not every part of the Internet is pure.   While countries around the world are questioning how to contain this - Australia is the first democracy to be tackling this challenge head on.

Many sites on the Internet contain illegal materials.  While every vice has it's own collection of sites, pornographhy and more specifically pornography including children are among the most offensive sites. The Australian government plans to start filtering certain web destinations in an effort to block harmful content from users in the country. The filter, which every Australian Internet Service Provider (ISP) would be obligated to use, would make Australia the strictest democracies as far as Internet regulation goes. 

Countries like Egypt, Iran and China have Internet censorship programs - but their censorship is as much political as it is about the morals of blocking pornography.  Organizations like the free speech lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) wonder how the Australian governement will manage moral censorship without slipping into political control.  As EFA vice president Colin Jacobs said “Our sense is that people will be much more worried about the fact that the government will have a secret blacklist that is not very compatible with our status as a democracy and a free society.”  Many similar arguments are made in the discussions about New Zealand's discussion of section 92a.

Certainly the cause is a noble one: It’s supposed to protect children from sexual violence, child pornography and crime-related websites.  Unfortunately, you can’t block child pornography by blocking a bunch of websites. Their are also chat rooms, IRC networks, P2P networks and a variety of technologies to allow people to cirumvent filters.

Satirists are having fun, but also highlighting the fine line that a democracy has when it comes to censoring information.  Australian satirical web news site WetPaper News had a rather humorous spin on the whole situation by pretending to have an article approved by the Australian Government National Classification System. The article describes a prediction that the filtering plan would be a “roaring success” and goes on to state that "The highly effective filter will protect internet users from devastating material such as pornography, drug use, crime tips and cyber terrorism. Without such a filter, Australia would be left morally corrupt, and at risk of attack by religious fanatics."

While this law is designed to prevent children from being exposed to this type of content, there is no research that indicates that government involvement will make the difference.  Opponents to the law claim that a majority of parents already choose to talk with their children around their access to the internet; and do this in a responsive way dependent upon the child's age and experience.

Child pornography is wrong - few will argue this statement. However, there are many challenges in figuring out an effective way for a democratic government to combat these issues.   The Australian government's initiatives are filled with challenges - but unlike most other democratic countries - they are at least looking for ways to address these challenges.

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