20 July 1997
Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.
GOVT INTERNET PROPOSALS -- THREAT TO FREE SPEECH; BURDEN ON ISPS
Online civil liberties group Electronic Frontiers Australia has warned that the proposals for Internet regulation released this week by the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Alston, and the Attorney-General, Mr Williams, would threaten free speech and place an impossible burden on Internet service providers.
EFA Chair Kimberley Heitman said the Government had done well to avoid the totalitarian censorship recommendations of the Senate Select Committee in its June 1997 report. However the proposals were still "an unnecessary intrusion by Big Brother".
There are several problems with the suggested principles for legislation.
The principles make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) responsible for content created and published by others. "It is quite simple.", said Mr Heitman. "Content providers should be responsible for content. The whole concept of making service providers responsible for content is bizarre. It is as senseless as making paper-makers responsible for books published using their paper".
The principles require ISPs to make judgements about how material published by their users would be classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. "The recent Rabelais case in the Federal Court illustrates the complexity of the OFLC classification system", said Mr Heitman. "But now ISPs, whose skills are primarily technical, are expected to enter the legal minefield of censorship classification. This is an extraordinary burden which can only result in perfectly legal material being removed 'just in case'."
The principles do not explain how jurisdictional issues resulting from States passing their own censorship laws would be resolved. "Requiring ISPs to take into account whether material would 'otherwise be illegal under a State or Territory law' could be a total nightmare, especially for national service providers", commented Mr Heitman. "It would effectively allow individual States to impose their values on the entire country".
The principles fail to take into account that clearly objectionable material such as child pornography is already illegal under existing law, or that the vast bulk of "adult" material is sourced from outside Australia. "The Clinton administration in the USA has just abandoned attempts to regulate the Internet - yet Australia seems to be trying to do the impossible all by itself", said Mr Heitman.
There is still no evidence that there is any problem for which legislation of this kind is the solution. User education and community awareness are important, but these can not usefully be compelled by legislation.
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