Protest rally against Australian government plan to censor broadband

A new, left-of-center politician seizes power in a wave of change against an unpopular right-winger who supported the war in Iraq. With him comes sweeping new policies that could change the fabric of society. But this isn't America.

It's Australia, where a popular uprising is gaining strength against a plan to force that country's ISPs to disallow Web access to two government-maintained blacklists of sites, including some that are known to provide child pornography. The protest comes just two days after the Canberra government's new Minister for Broadband, Sen. Stephen Conroy (L - Victoria), put forth an ambitious plan that would effectively guarantee taxpayers' accessibility to broadband service throughout the country.

The plan calls for nothing less than a National Broadband Network (NBN), which would supplement private industry initiatives with government subsidies.

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"Australia's development will require world-class communications infrastructure and services. Similarly, high-speed broadband access is critical to achieve business competitiveness, social networking and the promotion of social inclusion, and the delivery of public and private sector services. This Framework reinforces the need for the collaborative development and effective use of broadband," reads a government document outlining a Framework for public/private sector cooperation toward the rollout of the NBN published Friday (PDF available here).

But if government is going to be directly involved in this plan, it must also be jointly responsible for the security and safety of the service's users. To that end, last month, Sen. Conroy made official his plan to implement government-mandated blacklists of sites that contain material that the government does not want to be trafficking in.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority is developing this blacklist, and is implementing the technology that ISPs will implement to filter users' Web connections under this plan. Last June, the ACMA set up tests of this filtering equipment, simulating the conditions of a Tier-3 ISP -- one that has to partner with others in order to connect with all its customers, which would be common in rural areas of Australia. Previous tests with ISP filtering technology had yielded performance degradation of between 75% and 98%.

But with newer methodologies, the June test showed, the process could be improved. "Performance degradation measured in the current trial...varied across a significantly greater range -- from a very low two per cent to 87 per cent between the best- and worst-performing filter products," the newer test concluded (PDF available here), showing the improvement that comes from being certain you'll get no access to getting no access just part of the time.

But more importantly, for those remaining who do get some access, will what they receive contain illegal porn? According to the June ACMA tests, the latest filtering technologies were able to successfully squelch access to listed sites between 88% and 97% of the time, with about 3% of customers on average subject to so-called "overblocking" -- squelching of content that isn't on any list.

Is 3% overblocking acceptable? Maybe, maybe not, stated Sen. Conroy in testimony before Parliament last October. "We have not set some of those benchmarks," he told another senator during questioning (PDF available here, p. 76). "What we are seeing is what is the impact, but we have not said, 'Right, three per cent is acceptable and seven per cent is not acceptable.' We actually have not done that."

Of the two blacklists currently being compiled, the first is the mandatory blacklist where the government has ascertained improper content. The second is a softer blacklist that filters content that is presumably unsuitable for children's eyes, though the plan is for citizens to be given means to voluntarily opt out of that second blacklist. They cannot opt out of the first; and in any event, filtering will take place.

Also in Parliament, Dep. Sec. for Broadcasting Abul Rizvi told senators that ACMA is seeking help from outside the country in compiling its blacklists, particularly from countries that have had luck with this in the past.

"ACMA has been consulting in particular with the United States and the United Kingdom about sharing Web sites," Sec. Rizvi told the Communications Committee, "and they are making good progress in that regard. That would enable a more efficient management of the equivalent of the ACMA black list for Australia. Most Western countries that have introduced filtering have been focusing on the equivalent of the ACMA black list." When questioned further, Rizvi said the ACMA had not contacted China.

In recent weeks, proponents' strategy for defending the blacklisting plan has been counter-offensive, immediately accusing anyone skeptical of the plan of supporting child porn. For example, at one point, Sen. Scott Ludlam (G - W.A.) asked Sen. Conroy about other countries' filtering policies. "In terms of the countries that you have just listed for me, it is mandatory or is it an opt-in system that, for example, concerned parents could take advantage of?" asked Sen. Ludlam.

"Illegal material is illegal material. Child pornography is child pornography," responded Sen. Conroy. "I trust you are not suggesting that people should have access to child pornography."

And in this morning's The Australian, the head of the advocacy group Child Wise suggested that protesters in yesterday's rally were also essentially pro-child porn, saying, "Let the 300 people march on Canberra because it looks pathetic. It looks pathetic and shameful because most of these people are not fully aware of the facts and secondly, those who are aware are, in effect, advocating child pornography."

While the Digital Liberty Coalition, which sponsored yesterday's rally, estimated turnout at close to 2,500, local media did limit the estimate to closer to 300. Still, the group plans to assemble at least 2,000 people for a march on Canberra next March.

Tests of the government's filtering system are already under way, using a list that Sen. Conroy estimates to include over 10,000 URLs, some of which contain illegal material, others with content that he describes as "unwanted." A study last October by Electronic Frontiers Australia (PDF available here) of the names ACMA had been adding to its collective first-tier blacklist suggests that as much as 47% of filtered content falls into Conroy's "unwanted" category -- material that is technically legal under Australian law, but just something the government would rather its citizens not see.

Sen. Conroy's rising notoriety in Australian social online circles has led to an inevitable association: In an offshoot of the oft-cited "Hitler Rule" -- that anyone involved in a flame war who compares his opponent with Adolf Hitler, automatically loses -- Aussie net citizens have recently settled upon a "Conroy Rule:" "The first person to equate free speech with child pornography, loses."

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