Board Report: 1997 Annual General Meeting

1996/97 Board Report

Online liberties and access to the Internet have been under threat this year and EFA has been active in a number of campaigns. With the change to the EFA Charter at the Special General Meeting in June the Board has a mandate to promote new online rights in Australia and elsewhere.

Internet Regulation

EFA's core campaign has been the STOP! campaign against unnecessary censorship laws affecting the Internet. EFA made a strong submission to the Senate Select Committee looking into net.regulation and EFA Board member Greg Taylor addressed the Committee during public hearings in April. The Committee split three ways with the majority report favouring harsh censorship and massive fines for ISPs. EFA gained exposure and credibility with the quality of its submission and several of the EFA objections were reflected in the findings of the Labor and Democrat Senators who released separate minority reports.

Following the Senate's review the Department of Communication and the Arts and the Federal Attorney-General jointly launched the Federal Government's proposed framework for Internet regulation in July. While the proposals are an improvement on previous government papers, there remain major flaws associated with the classification of Internet content under OFLC guidelines the role of the Australian Broadcasting Authority as a regulator of ISPs and ultimately the absurdity of transmission offences.

EFA assisted in mobilising a combined response from the online community, establishing a common mailing list for diverse online groups and interested individuals to discuss appropriate responses and counter-proposals. This culminated in a meeting with DoCA and the ABA in Sydney on August 6 during which representatives of EFA, the Australian Computer Society, The Internet Society (Aust), WA Internet Association, SA Internet Association and the Australian Internet Alliance were able to put views to the Government on the proposed framework.

The draft Federal legislation is due to be made public shortly, and EFA will be responding in detail. Internet censorship is an exercise in futility which has the adverse effect of stifling the growth of Internet business and services, as even a censorious government such as Malaysia has accepted. The challenge for the Federal government is how to promote Australian services on the Internet, and EFA will be pressing the government to focus on positive policies towards that outcome.

Online Petition

As part of the STOP! campaign EFA established an online petition at which has attracted over two thousand electronic signatures. The petition calls upon the Australian Senate to reject unnecessary censorship laws. Whilst it was at one time a controversial opinion to seek a censorship-free Internet, there is a growing consensus that the impracticality of censorship of the global networks from Canberra renders the debate about content nonsensical. Columnists in The Australian The Bulletin the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have this year come out against net.regulation - it appears that EFA is winning the informed debate.

Campaigning for free speech puts EFA at odds with numerous sectional interests from religious and community groups to the Woods Royal Commission. There are always plausible reasons advanced for restricting free speech restricting access to information or monitoring the activities of Internet users - however persuasive the reasons may be the end result is to surrender liberties hard-won and worth defending. The "wars" against drugs terrorism child porn or tax evasion may be worthwhile aims but do not require a police state.

Campaigns

EFA was involved in privacy issues with the Campaign for Fair Privacy Laws following a teleconference with policy groups and the Privacy Commissioner early this year. The Federal government broke an election promise and derailed a settled agreement among privacy and industry groups by refusing to enact legislation to give privacy rights in relation to information held in the private sector. The present government position is that privacy will be promoted through an industry code of practice, which has been declared insufficient for international trade security by the European Union. EFA seeks the enactment of national privacy laws, made all the more important given the potential for invasions of privacy using computer technology.

EFA joined the coalition of groups campaigning against relaxation of cross-media ownership rules. Led by the Australian Consumers' Association, the campaign seeks to maintain diversity of media ownership - of direct relevance to the Internet given the absence of controls over Internet news services and emerging convergence of media.

The StopTelstra campaign started by EFA to campaign against timed local calls was broadened to monitor telecommunications policy following deregulation on July 1. The campaign succeeded in persuading the Federal government to declare against timed local calls or "B-party" charging, and the Australian Democrats have been vigilant in seeking amendments to law to give that declaration binding force. EFA will continue to be involved in debate concerning cheap access to the telecommunications networks and consumer and industry satisfaction with Federal government policy.

EFA has been a leader in the cryptography debate and this year the Australian government's position was highlighted when EFA Board member Greg Taylor obtained the Walsh Report on cryptography policy under the Freedom of Information Act. The report recommended open use of cryptography and a rejection of the military view that its use is to be restricted. However amendments to the Telecommunications Act presently under debate would require ISPs offering secure services to make decryption available to law enforcement officials and it would appear that privacy and security issues remain deadlocked.

Part of EFA's function is to advise on policy matters and to provide spokespersons as may be required. EFA Chair Kimberley Heitman addressed Curtin University's seminar on "Safe Surfing" in April and the Policy Network's Sydney seminar "Consumer Protection on the Internet" in May. Several times each week media organisations request EFA comment on Internet issues and during the year there have been interviews and statements published in almost all major newspapers, national radio and television networks and especially Internet magazines.

As a member of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign group EFA has been a signatory to submissions and protests regarding Internet liberties in other jurisdictions. All over the world governments are determining Internet policy and considering the scope of censorship. EFA's involvement with GILC has been beneficial in terms of shared resources peer review of submissions and with support from GILC for EFA's campaigns.

The year ahead

Since the last Board report EFA has built on its reputation and expanded its influence in many policy areas. The Board of EFA comprises 10 volunteers no paid staff or offices - and the hard work of those volunteers over the year is greatly appreciated. Three members of the Board Kerrin Pine Jonathon Coombes and Andrew Connor retire this year and on behalf of the Board I thank them for their contribution and wish them well in the future. New members of the Board for the forthcoming year will be Jan Whitaker Mark Neely and Irene Graham - and their contribution to EFA's tasks ahead will be very welcome. EFA relies on the efforts of a few dedicated activists to maintain a determined presence in policy debates and as always EFA could do more with the help of more like them. Members are urged to renew financial membership and become more involved in EFA's campaigns to help secure the future of the Internet as a global resource free of petty regulation and accessible by everyone.

For the Board,

Kimberley Heitman B.Juris, Llb,
Chair Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.

12th October 1997