Political censorship of internet linkage begins in Australia

The host ISP of Electronic Frontiers Australia has been served a take-down notice for linking to an R-rated "blackbanned" site, itself not in Australia, in a page that was a political comment on the merits (or demerits, rather) of mandatory internet filtering in Australia. I put the entire text of their notice below the fold. This is exactly what we were told would never happen by the minister. It is exactly what everybody who ever thought for ten minutes on the subject knew would happen.

EFA gets link removal notice

Posted by Colin Jacobs | Censorship, Mandatory ISP Filtering | Tuesday 5 May 2009 3:14 pm

EFA’s web hosting provider was today the recipient of a Link Deletion notice from ACMA for an article on our web site ironically entitled “Net censorship already having a chilling effect“. The original article included a link to a page at abortiontv.com that includes graphic images and was previously added to ACMA’s blacklist for being “R-18+”-level material. (For more information on the ACMA net censorship system, see here and here.)

There are many reasons why this should alarm Australian net users. Most significantly, the link was part of a political discussion about the merits of the existing and future Internet censorship policies. The link was offered as a demonstration of the sorts of controversial content that could and would be included in any such proposal. No “offensive” material was included on our site itself. Nevertheless, we were forced to remove the link on pain of severe penalties.

To be clear, EFA published only a link to a page that is hosted overseas and is on ACMA’s prohibited list. Viewing the potentially R-rated page itself is not in any way illegal, and no system is yet in place to enforce the blocking of such web pages. One may well wonder why a link to a legally viewable page should draw the threat of legal sanction while the content itself remains visible. Because the link was on a web page hosted in Australia, the hosting provider - not EFA ourselves, who have more control over the content - falls under Australian legal jurisdiction and could be so served. What this accomplishes is uncertain.

This system, which costs Australian taxpayers millions each year, is clearly unworkable. Because the content is hosted overseas, it remains untouched by ACMA’s directives. Any links or commentary on prohibited content can be protected by the simple expedient of posting it on a web site hosted overseas. No letters from the Australian media regulator, issued months after complaints are filed, will reduce the availability of such material. If a link to a prohibited page is not allowed, what about a link to a link? At what number of hops does a hyperlink become acceptable?

This is a textbook case that demonstrates that there is no sharp dividing line between “political” speech and other content. At the edges of public policy are issues which will inflame passions and lead to images, video and words that are offensive to many people. Trying to stamp these out, especially on the Internet, not only diminishes our democracy but is pointless and paternalistic to boot.

On the Internet, a discussion about some information is often barely distinguishable from the information itself. The current ACMA censorship regime accomplishes little apart from achieving a Howard-era political objective, and makes it clear how far behind the curve political thinking is when it comes to the technical realities of the Internet. We now seem set to move to a new stage where the perceived shortcomings of the current system are to be remedied by legislation making the blocking of overseas content mandatory. It goes without saying that such a block will be easily circumvented by those with the motivation, and material of genuine political interest will find a way to proliferate despite the ban. It is average Australians who will be left wondering what they should and should not be viewing, and not know what controversial material has been deemed unacceptable by the censors.

With fines of up to $11,000 per day threatened against our hosting provider, we have little choice but to comply with ACMA’s directive. However, we are investigating an appeal of the order on the grounds that it stifles a legitimate political discussion on the merits of the Government’s internet censorship policies.

Full text of the LDN here.

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I know why this has happened: Those Australians, they're downwards. Thus all the blood has run to their heads, making them do silly stuff like this.

On the face of it this seems bad news.

However, unless the government is prepared to break all encrypted connections (with a man-in-the-middle attack), or just ban them outright, then their censorship plan is worth sweet FA in the real world, and is all just for show.

Ask the government about encrypted connections, and watch them change subject quickly, and start blathering on about 'we have to try to protect the kiddies'.

Then talk to the high powered IT security guys about this and listen to their wild hysterical laughter when asked if even the basic idea will work properly, let alone make any real difference to online crime.

It is a complete farce.

The problem with encryption is simple, it may help the technically savvy, but it does nothing for the general public. Why do you think China doesn't break its back going after guys who use proxy servers outside China to gain access to unfiltered data? Simply because there aren't sufficient people who have the knowledge to do so. What's more, by forcing those individuals who do wish to bypass the Great Firewall, unfiltered web sites take on the air of dangerous and forbidden knowledge.

I think precisely the same thing is happening in Australia. The government is clearly trying to do more than just undermine its critics, it's attempting to use the power of the state, via fines (so far) to force anyone wanting to view the forbidden websites underground. If one has to use encrypted connections or foreign proxies, well then, in a certain way, the government has already one. Even if it never becomes technically feasible to go after encrypted connections, the psychological message has been sent to the populace.

By Aaron Clausen (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

It does not sound like they need encryption.

If links to material is a problem, they just need tinyurl.com, or tr.im or similar. Problem solved.

I remember an article some time ago which indicated one of the Australian government's top targets was sites advocating voluntary euthanasia/right-to-die.

What if you link to google.com/search?q=website's+name?

Can they prohibit linking to google which in turn links to a site that links to a site which is blacklisted?

I am a greek living in Greece. I get the feeling that governments around the world will work together to undermine free speech.
Concerning the case discussed here, I understand that citizens get a taste of a "1984" world. Wait for screens in your private place, where a big sister tells you what's wrong or right.
Why did the West win the Cold War? To replace the Grand Soviets.

I wonder if there is anything to be read into the fact that the two places that have been issued take down notices publicly are both critical of the government.

I think there is. ACMA is responding to criticisms of its raison d'être, and this is being fed right now by government "policy", so they are acutely sensitive to criticism.

Encryption is rapidly becoming very user friendly, won't be long before it is standard in a simple GUI format for browsers/systems, you just click a single option button or two to activate it. Most torrent clients already have it.

Polls in Oz already show consistent high level opposition in the general population to this censorship plan. They are interested enough to use encryption if it is made easy.

Sokratis is right that governments are going to work together to try to defeat this, they are already starting to do so with torrenting, though I think their chances of success are very low indeed.

Speaking as an Australian, I'm still a bit gob-smacked by this. Where the hell did this come from anyway? Since when did the Australian Government let itself be led around by the nose by a religious group? I mean WTF! This is not a part of my Australia. It's like we've had some sort of a religious coup ... that wasn't televised.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

So.... what was the offending link to? Enquiring minds, etc. On a more serious note: this kind of bullsh!t was part of my motivation for leaving Australia. I'm alarmed but not really all that surprised, y'know? Look at how willingly the people swallowed Ratty's line for years.

ACMA is responding to criticisms of its raison d'être

This is a pretty close parallel to those provisions in all the "anti-terror" laws that You do not talk about Fight Club being arrested/rendered/tortured for suspicion of terrorism-related thoughts. Massive disobedience and ridicule of such laws is the best response, though... it's easy for me to say, not (so far, anyway) being a target.
I'm a bit of a Tom Stoppard fan, and these things often remind me of Professional Foul. Civil disobedience is the only moral response to repression, but it takes uncommon physical courage to be the first on your block. The more massive and immediate the flouting of these laws, the less courage it requires to do the right thing. Or just do it sneakily.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink