Internet content censorship regime
Answer to Senate Question on Notice No. 3590

On 8 August 2001, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts tabled Answers to Questions on Notice in the Senate (asked by Senator Brian Greig in May 2001) regarding the government's Six-Month Report on Co-Regulatory Scheme for Internet Content Regulation July to December 2000. A copy of the questions and answers is below.

Note: The document tabled in the Senate is formatted as a list of questions, followed by a list of answers. For ease of reference, the format below lists each question followed by the answer in indented brown coloured text.


Internet Content
(Question No. 3590)

Senator Greig asked the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, upon notice, on 29 May 2001:

   [list of questions below]

Senator Alston --The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

   [list of answers below]

(1) What is the definition of 'item' as used in the report. For example, when a URL (eg. http://www.somewhere.com.au/page/) displays a single Web page containing 10 prohibited images on that one Web page, is this counted as 1 item, 10 items or 11 items.

(1) In the second Six Month Report for July to December 2000, 'item' means Internet content viewed as a single page using a standard browser, or a single Usenet newsgroup message or 'posting' as viewed by a standard newsreader. A page containing 10 images is counted as one item.

(2) Given that the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) complaint form states 'Note: You can complain about only one item of Internet content in each complaint form', why do the figures show that 67 items were investigated for 6 complaints about prohibited content hosted in Australia.

(2) The ABA's online complaint form is based on international practice, adapted to take account of the particular requirements of the Australian law. The ABA asks complainants to lodge a separate complaint for each item of content. In this context, 'item' means a single page of World Wide Web content, a Usenet newsgroup, or a single posting to a newsgroup.

In some instances the simple equation between complaint and item is not easily made. For example, where a complaint relates to an entire newsgroup, rather than a single posting on it, the ABA investigates a sample of the postings contained in the newsgroup, asks the Classification Board to classify the content concerned and takes appropriate action according to the classification. For the purpose of reporting, each of the postings sampled is then counted as an item in the statistics. Similarly, the ABA may investigate a sample of the content on a World Wide Web site about which a person has complained, and each page would be counted as an item in the statistics. However, investigations relating to complaints about World Wide Web content are less likely to involve more than one item of content, as complaints relating to such content generally pertain to a specific page of content.

(3) What is the reason for the large difference in average number of prohibited items found per complaint about Australian-hosted content (67 items from 6 complaints) as compared to those about overseas hosted content (136 items from 133 complaints).

(3) Three of the six complaints about Australian hosted content related to Internet content in Usenet newsgroups hosted on Australian servers. As noted above, investigations relating to content hosted in Usenet newsgroups may involve two or more items of content. All complaints about content hosted outside Australia related to World Wide Web content. A complaint about World Wide Web content is likely to involve only one item of content.

(4) In relation to the 6 of 221 complaints investigated by the ABA that resulted in finding 67 items of prohibited content hosted in Australia:

(a) did the ABA issue 67 separate final takedown notices, with each particular final takedown notice notifying of only one item of content; if not: (i) how many final takedown notices were issued, and (ii) how many items of prohibited content were notified in each of the final takedown notices;

(4)(a) When the ABA investigates a complaint about Internet content that is hosted in Australia, and is satisfied that the content concerned is prohibited content, one final take-down notice is issued to the relevant Internet content host.

In the period 1 July to 31 December 2000, the ABA issued six final take-down notices, related to 1, 15, 10, 10, 1 and 27 items of content respectively.

(b) (i) how many Internet content hosts were issued with a final takedown notice, and (ii) how many Internet content hosts were issued with more than one final takedown notice; and
(b)(i) 5

(ii) 1

(c) for each of the 6 complaints that resulted in a finding of prohibited content hosted in Australia, how many final takedown notices were issued regarding: (i) items classified 'R' (and how many items), (ii) items classified 'X' (and how many items), and (iii) items classified 'RC' (and how many items).

(c) The following table shows the number of notices issued per complaint and the number of items classified R, X or RC covered by each notice.

Complaint No. No. of notices issued Classification of items


R X RC
20001697 1 1

20001656 1

15
20001699 1 3 2 5
20001726 1

10
20001792 1

1
20001796 1 7 7 13

(5) In relation to the 45 items of 'Australian-hosted serious Internet content' that the ABA referred to the relevant state or territory police service:
(a)  how many items were found on Australian-hosted World Wide Web sites (excluding Web-based interfaces to Usenet newsgroups);
(b) how many items were found in Usenet newsgroups (including Web-based interfaces to Usenet newsgroups); and
(c) how many items were found elsewhere (ie. 'other files that can be downloaded from an archive or library').

(5)(a) Thirty-six per cent of items referred to State and Territory police services were items hosted on World Wide Web sites.

(b) Sixty-four per cent of items referred to State and Territory police services were items from Usenet newsgroups hosted in Australia.

(c) None of the items referred to State and Territory police services were items hosted in other formats.

(6) Why did the ABA report in an answer to questions on notice to the Senate Estimates Committee (30 November 2000) that there were 91 items referred to state or territory police from 1 January to the end of November, while the official report states 89 items from 1 January to the end of December.

(6) The discrepancy appears to relate to misclassification and/or double-counting of some items in the ABA's complaint database at the time the November 2000 statistic was calculated. The complaint data are regularly reviewed for accuracy and the inaccuracy was corrected prior to calculation of the December 2000 statistic. It is anticipated that such inaccuracies will be eliminated when the interim, prototype complaint management system currently in use is replaced as part of the upgrading of the ABA's information management infrastructure, scheduled to be complete by the end of June 2002.

(7) In relation to the 89 items referred to state or territory police, and the 156 items referred to the Australian Federal Police, in the full year, has the Minister inquired about the prosecution rate of offenders and received information from police that would support claims that the Internet has been made safer; if so, how many prosecutions have commenced in Australia.

(7) Law enforcement investigations relating to Internet content that the ABA has referred to a State or Territory police service are matters to be determined by the relevant agency in question.

The issue of feedback on content referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) will be addressed in a new service level agreement to be negotiated between the ABA and the AFP, replacing the current Memorandum of Understanding between the two organisations. As part of the new agreement, the ABA will receive regular reports on action taken in relation to matters it has referred to the AFP. Where appropriate, the ABA will report on the feedback it receives.

(8) In relation to the ABA's discretion to defer action about prohibited content or potential prohibited content at the request of police in order to avoid prejudicing a criminal investigation:
(a) during the period July to December 2000, how many Australian-hosted items were the subject of deferral of action by the ABA at the request of police;
(b) does the number of completed investigations include instances where the ABA's investigation of content is complete but action (eg. issue of a takedown notice) has been deferred by the ABA at the request of police; if so, in relation to completed investigations as at 31 December 2000, how many Australian-hosted items had not been the subject of a final takedown notice due to deferral; and
(c) of the 15 incomplete investigations as at 31 December 2000: (i) how many concern Australian-hosted content and how many of the latter were incomplete due to deferral by the ABA at the request of police, and (ii) how many Australian-hosted items were involved.

(8) (a) Nil.
     (b) No; Nil.
     (c)(i) 1; Nil.
        (ii) 1

(9) In relation to the statement in the report that: 'The Government considered it a logical step to legislate to extend the existing classification system for film, television and other media to the Internet. This system was established to provide guidance to the community, and particularly to concerned parents, on the suitability or otherwise of content. The classifications are based on contemporary community values and are well understood and accepted by the community', what system is in place to enable members of the public to receive guidance on the suitability or otherwise of Internet content, that is, to find out the classification that has been given by the ABA or the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to particular Internet content.

(9) In determining the definition of prohibited content under Schedule 5, the Government had the option of applying existing classification guidelines or creating new guidelines, which would take time and may create confusion and uncertainty, not only for users and providers of online content, but also the broader community and the Internet industry. In this context the Government chose to apply the existing classification system for films and computer games.

The Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Videotapes and the Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games are developed by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) in consultation with the community and are approved by Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers with Censorship responsibilities. The guidelines, which are reviewed regularly, are readily available from the OFLC and set out in detail the nature of the content in each of the classification categories (eg R, X).

Unlike traditional media, where Australia can largely control the import and distribution of material refused classification or subject to legal restrictions, the Internet presents a more complicated medium. Publishing information about the classification of prohibited online content may entail the provision of information that would enable members of the public to access that prohibited content, thereby undermining the policy intent of the scheme.

(10) During the 12 months, January to December 2000: (a) how many complaints and/or investigations were initiated by the ABA itself and/or its staff; (b) how many complaints were initiated by government agencies (other than the ABA); (c) how many complaints were initiated by members of Parliament; and (d) how many complaints were initiated by persons who are not Australian residents.

(1)(a) The ABA initiated 33 investigations during the period 1 January - 31 December 2000. All 33 investigations were initiated following receipt of information which could not be formally considered to be a complaint (because the person was not entitled to make a complaint or the complaint did not contain all the required information), but which the ABA considered warranted investigation due to the apparent serious nature of the content concerned.

Thirteen investigations were initiated as a result of information received from persons who were not Australian residents, mainly from overseas complaint hotlines. The remaining 20 investigations were initiated after receipt of anonymous complaints. The ABA requires complainants to provide their name and contact details when lodging a complaint and it is the ABA's policy to investigate an anonymous complaint only where the complaint appears to relate to child pornography or similarly serious content.

(b) No complainants identified themselves as government agencies.

(c) Seven complainants identified themselves as members of Parliament.

(d) Twenty-nine complaints were received from persons who identified themselves as not being Australian residents. As noted above, the ABA initiated investigations in relation to 13 of these complaints, due to the apparent serious nature of the content concerned. No further action was taken in relation to the remaining 16 complaints, as they appeared to be outside the scope of the co-regulatory scheme.

(11) During the six months, July to December 2000, how many different individuals or organisations initiated the 290 complaints.

(11) The ABA received complaints from a broad range of members of the community who encountered online content about which they had concerns. Some 132 different individuals lodged complaints during the period 1 July to 31 December 2000, excluding investigations initiated by the ABA.

(12) What is the total cost for the 2000 calendar year of the Internet regulatory activities of the ABA and the community activities of NetAlert.

(12) The ABA's functions in relation to Internet content regulation are specified in Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and include the following:

·investigating complaints about Internet content;

·registering and monitoring compliance with codes of practice for the Internet industry;

·advising and assisting families about supervision and control of children's access to Internet content;

·conducting and/or co-ordinating community education programs about Internet content and usage;

·conducting and/or commissioning research into issues relating to Internet content and usage;

·liaising with relevant overseas regulators and other bodies in relation to co-operative arrangements for regulation of the Internet; and

·informing itself and advising the Minister and developments and trends in the Internet industry.

Detailed information about the performance of these functions is set out in reports tabled by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on 5 September 2000 and 19 April 2001.

For the calendar year 2000, the costs of these activities were as follows:

Administration costs (1), $294,825

Salary and superannuation (2), $323,494

Total (3), $616,319

Notes:

1. Administration costs relate to the activities of the Online Services Content Regulation Section and relevant costs incurred by the Director of Policy and Content Regulation Branch and Deputy Chairman.

2. Salary and superannuation costs relate to the staff of the Online Services Content Regulation Section only.

3. The following items are not included:

other direct labour costs such as employer superannuation contributions, long service leave and separation payments;

indirect labour costs;

corporate overheads;

indirect administration costs; and

depreciation.

The total cost for the 2000 calendar year for NetAlert activities was $786,984. Of this amount, $87,014 was expended by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on NetAlert activities early in the 2000 calendar year while the operations of the NetAlert Secretariat were still being established. NetAlert's main activities are directed at community development and education.

(13) How many items of Internet content were referred to OFLC for the year; and (b) what was the total amount of fees levied by OFLC for classification services for: (i) Australian-hosted content, and (ii) content hosted overseas.

(13)(a) 156

(b)(i) 141 items at a total cost of $77,390

(ii) 15 items at a total cost of $7,650.