THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 110, February 26, 2001
Up With Civil Disobedience!
by TLE <TLE@johntaylor.org>
Draconian net censorship push
HARSH internet laws that give police power to prosecute anyone posting content deemed unsuitable for minors are likely to be passed by the South Australian Government next month.
The Classification Amendment Bill, which goes far beyond legislation in place in any other state, allows police officers to decide whether online material is illegal. Prosecutions, backed by fines of $10,000, can be launched ahead of any decision on the material's classification.
Anti-censorship campaigners have labelled the legislation "political censorship gone rampant" and fear it will stifle public discussion on a range of important subjects.
SA Attorney-General Trevor Griffin said it was intended to provide state-based enforcement components of the 1999 amendments to the federal Broadcasting Services Act regulating online content.
The federal law treats all internet content as film, and requires material to be rated by the Office of Film and Literature Classification accordingly.
Mr Griffin said the bill would set up measures to deal with offensive material online.
"Objectionable material includes items classifiable as X or RC, such as child pornography, and sites instructing in or inciting criminal activity," he said.
"These laws are intended to catch the content provider, not the internet service provider or the content host.
"They aim to make it illegal to make available online matter that would be illegal if left in a public place offline."
But Electronic Frontiers Australia founder and former board member Michael Baker said there was a great danger the bill would suppress free speech in South Australia.
"I think it's political censorship gone rampant," he said in Adelaide yesterday.
"Not only would South Australians not be permitted to put film of discussions of adult themes on the internet, we couldn't even discuss them in a newsgroup or on a mailing list that gets archived.
"Discussion on safe injecting rooms or voluntary euthanasia would be chilled, for example, as film classification would be treat both of these as adult themes."
Those and other issues were legitimate topics for political debate, Mr Baker said. "These are things you can discuss in the pub, but you won't be allowed to discuss them on the internet."
Moving websites offshore has been a way to get around the federal legislation, as the Australian Broadcasting Authority could not enforce take-down orders against sites hosted overseas.
But Mr Baker said South Australians who placed content online could be liable, no matter where the material was hosted.
"If someone made a complaint, SA police would have the task of doing something about it," he said. "But police aren't trained to interpret OFLC rulings."
Nobody wanted to see pornography or paedophilia online, but the proposed bill was unworkable, Adelaide internet consultant and educator Brenda Aynsley said.
"There is sufficient existing legislation to take action under traditional laws and the new federal law," she said.
"I think the issue needs some public airing outside parliament, and I would hate to see this bill just passed quietly in the middle of the night."
Melbourne academic Peter Chen, who has written a thesis on internet censorship in Australia, said the SA bill was a little bit of politics aimed at parochial voters and would have no impact on the availability of undesirable content to minors.
"There will be a chilling effect. If you're a South Australian and you've got content that might be classified more highly than a PG rating, my recommendation would be to move it offshore immediately," Dr Chen said.