Board Report: 2002 Annual General Meeting

"Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind."
- General William C. Westmoreland

Under shadow of the "War Against Terrorism", this year has seen strong debate on measures to curtail civil liberties in Australia and elsewhere. The Net Censorship debate has taken a political turn, with a national police conference, the NSW Police Minister and the Federal Minister for justice calling for the banning of activist websites. EFA has been consulted by activist groups expecting a showdown ahead of World Trade Organisation protests and anti-war websites. At times of war as in times of peace, EFA is dedicated to freedom of expression and fair regulation of privacy, and on behalf of the Board I am pleased to report on EFA's activities during the past year.

Censorship

Freedom of expression, an earnest aspiration of many millions of Internet users, is under threat across many areas. Pornography online has been the purported reason for two State laws, in NSW and SA, threatening to criminalise Internet content that is unsuitable for children. The bill was passed in NSW, but has not been proclaimed following a campaign and submissions by EFA and others as to the chilling effect on freedom of speech.

EFA researched and released a comprehensive study entitled "Internet Censorship - Law & Policy around the world" in response to a request from the NSW Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Issues for information on whether or not other countries have Internet censorship laws similar to NSW's proposed laws.

Despite strong objections from EFA and other industry organisations, a new South Australian Labor government has passed virtually identical legislation to the discredited NSW Net censorship bill and went on to scuttle a national plan to permit R-rated computer games. Other States and Territories seemed set to agree that adults, too, should have age-appropriate computer games, but the incoming SA Government refused to sign on. Under the national censorship rules, one State can block any liberalisation of censorship classifications.
EFA submitted to the HREOC Cyber-Racism Symposium that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission needs to tread cautiously in seeking to ban controversial "hate speech" web sites due to the practical and jurisdictional constraints on the ability of an Australian regulator to impose one country's viewpoints on a global medium.

The Federal Internet censorship regime remains an ongoing issue for EFA and as promised we have worked hard to keep the Government and the Internet Industry Association honest about the operation and effectiveness of the "co-regulatory" national censorship regime. EFA submitted on the new IIA Code of Practice and regularly published critiques and reviews of the Australian Broadcasting Authority's censorship under take-down orders. We were unsuccessful in persuading an Administrative Appeals Tribunal to force the ABA to detail what sort of web pages were being censored in Australia and other details about the process, but strangely the Government has nonetheless introduced legislation to exclude Australia's secret Internet censorship from FOI review.

Telecommunications Privacy

With surveillance of telephone calls and Internet communications increasing, EFA has been campaigning hard for better privacy protections and a commitment to traditional values in wiretapping in the digital age. The privacy of personal communication is a perceived natural right, as axiomatic as private property or freedom of association. Australians in particular expect that surveillance of communications is done under strict safeguards and only when necessary for the prevention of serious crime. EFA made a comprehensive submission on interception of Internet communications and associated wiretapping to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee and has been active in opposing moves to require ISPs to store data for years to facilitate "possible" law enforcement retrieval.

Apart from wiretapping, new technologies have the capacity to provide personal identifiers where none existed in the offline world. EFA has this year campaigned and submitted to the Australian Communications Industry Forum ("ACIF") on privacy abuses of Caller Line Identification by carriers. EFA submitted to the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) in relation to the Spam review and to the Australian Communications Authority ("ACA") on the dangers of the proposed ENUM plan to tie phone numbers to Internet addresses.

The implementation of Australia's flawed privacy laws proved this year that audit and prosecution powers are necessary to remedy commercial abuses of online privacy. EFA commends the work of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, Malcolm Crompton, and has been an active campaigner on privacy matters including lodging a detailed submission on collection and use of personal information. However, more needs to be done to protect consumers from data aggregation and intrusive marketing and to plug the many loopholes and exemptions in the present Act.

Australian Domain Names

This year, the long-awaited competitive registrar reforms were launched in the .au domain name space, with a new registry and multiple registrars. EFA was a founder member of auDA, and was re-elected for a two year term at the auDA Annual General Meeting held on the 11th of November. Apart from helping frame the new competition rules and opening up the so-called "generic" .com.au names, EFA has influenced auDA policy on freedom of expression, consumer protections and public consultation. In April, EFA submitted that auDA have strong privacy protections in WHOIS, and this was subsequently adopted in the auDA privacy policy. EFA holds the Deputy Chairman position on auDA and has been re-elected to key auDA subcommittees. In the year to come, auDA will be launching a new Foundation for community projects and new domain names for communities, and EFA will be continuing to campaign for the public interest to prevail over commercial and sectional interests in the management of the .au domain name space.

Defamation Laws

While some politicians are calling for new crimes of criminal defamation and sterner civil penalties, others have been campaigning for fairer uniform rules for defamation cases. While EFA supports the right of any person to clear their name from slur, the enormous expense and uncertainty of litigation makes it a tactic of the wealthy rather than an aid to the average person. More often than not, the threat of litigation chills free speech and cash damages are no substitute for a full and fast apology. EFA has created a Guide to Defamation Laws and will continue to campaign for freedom of expression and fair defamation laws.

International

EFA is a member of the Global Internet Liberty Coalition and contributes to international campaigns to preserve online freedoms and promote greater acknowledgement of rights of online users.

EFA participates in the Civil Society Internet Forum which is seeking to bring greater democracy and governance to ICANN and Board members of EFA are active in a number of affiliated international organisations.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to our colleagues in others associations, including the Australian UNIX and Open Systems User Group and Linux Australia who promoted EFA and civil liberties at their annual conferences, the Internet Society of Australia for their strong advocacy of consumer rights and fair Internet governance and Watch on Censorship for their campaign across classified media.

On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank our Executive Director, Ms Irene Graham, for her tireless efforts for EFA and her own online censorship resource Libertus.Net. Thanks also to our members for their continued financial and moral support, and as Chairperson I would like to acknowledge the unpaid work of our volunteer Board members in the past year.

EFA is in a strong position to continue its online advocacy in 2003 and all of us look forward to an active and challenging year ahead.
On behalf of the Board

Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, Llb, AACS
Chairperson, Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc
18 November 2002