EFA has received many queries from overseas in the last few days asking: What on earth is going on down there? Well, we hoped that sense would prevail; that more important policies would get in the way, or that the Minister would get seated on a plane next to somebody who actually understood how the Internet works. Instead, at a sudden press conference it was announced that Australia will next year join the ranks of countries who censor the net.
It's hard for any government to resist pursuing a policy when children are involved, or are seen to be involved. The censorship push started its life as a cyber-safety policy, where ISPs would be required to provide a filtered solution to families, but has since morphed into something at once less useful and more sinister. An announcement on Tuesday confirms it: next year, all Australian ISPs will be required to filter access to a government-supplied blacklist containing "refused classification" (RC) web content. That would include nasty stuff like child pornography, but also a broader range of content: fetishy sex, instruction in crime (such as euthanasia), any computer game not suitable for under 18s. The list will be partly generated by complaints from the public, and may include lists imported from overseas police departments.
While this is sold as a kid-friendly measure, to "improve safety of the internet for families", it's clearly nothing of the sort. A few thousand URLs hardly constitutes a national net nanny. The list would almost be laughable if only it was not mandatory and secret - unlike censorship decisions made in other media, blocked URLs will remain secret and expressly excluded from freedom of information requests. Just as worrying is the fact that once this list is in, a conga-line of special interests will be approaching the government to have their pet peeves added to the list. It's not much of a stretch to imagine AFACT (Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft) clamouring to have bittorrent trackers added, and several parliamentarians are on record calling for a ban on pro-anorexia sites and pornography in general.
It looks like the Australian blogosphere and twitterverse are in an uproar, and the media have not been very kind. What remains to be seen is how much this issue can crossover into the mainstream public consciousness. If the policy is seen as a vote-loser rather than a crowd pleaser, the Government might be a little readier to see reason.
So is Australia the new Iran? Should you encrypt your hard drive or install a VPN before visiting Australia next year? Well, it's not the law of the land yet, but unless the political winds change, Australia is set to join a club with some rather unsavoury members.