Major supporter has a change of heart

One of Australia's most vociferous opponents of online gambling, Senator Nick Xenophon has withdrawn his support from Aussie government moves to censor the Internet and says he will oppose any legislation that seeks to do so. Xenophon's change of heart from supporter to opposition could generate more problems for the already troubled and highly controversial government initiative to introduce ISP filtering of whatever it deems to be undesirable.

Xenophon was previously in favour of a system that would run all citizens' Internet connections through a filter for "illegal" content because it might have also blocked access to online gambling sites, reports Ars Technica. But as more and more concerns about the practicability of the plan have been raised, he has decided that there are too many unanswered questions and he will move to block any legislation on the topic.

Ars Technica recalls that the Australian government first revealed its filtering initiative in 2007, and was immediately met with a widespread public outcry. Despite this, the government moved forward with its plans and began testing the system in Tasmania in February of 2008. At the time, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said that the filters would be enabled by default and that consumers would have to request unfiltered connectivity if they wished to opt-out of the program (see previous InfoPowa reports).

In October of 2008, however, it transpired that those promises were only partially true. There were to be two blacklists—one for "illegal" content (not optional), and another for "additional material" targeted toward content inappropriate for children (optional). Unsurprisingly, this caused an even bigger uproar; "illegal" is a broad definition, leaving users wondering exactly what kinds of content would end up falling prey to the government's mandatory filtering restrictions.

Just last month, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which controls the secret blacklist, added an anti-abortion website to the list because it showed photographs of aborted fetuses. Those things may be offensive content to some, but they are certainly not illegal for adults in Australia to view, Ars Technica points out.

The final straw for many Australians came in December of 2008, when the government released a report that essentially tore apart its own filtering scheme, pointing out numerous technical difficulties and legal concerns with implementation. Among the anticipated problems were overblocking and underblocking content, service degradation, interception and hacking, privacy breaches, and breaching sale of goods legislation.

The report also notes that incorrect blocks may be uncommon, but errors could prove to be costly - a single blocked site could result in multiple legal claims, including loss of revenue and "defamation, due to the grave implication that the owner has been involved in the distribution of illegal content."

Nevertheless, the new Labour government in Australia insisted on pushing forward, rationalising its actions by saying that the report was commissioned by the previous administration.

The Sydney Morning Herald has since pointed out that Xenophon has now joined the Green Party and the opposition in threatening to block whatever legislation may be required to get the plan going.

"The more evidence that's come out, the more questions there are on this," Xenophon told the newspaper. "I'm very sceptical that the government is going down the best path on this. I commend their intentions but I think the implementation of this could almost be counter-productive and I think the money could be better spent."

In addition to Xenophon's decision to stop supporting the filtering legislation, an independent poll of Australian citizens conducted by Galaxy showed that only five percent of Australians actually want ISPs to be responsible for controlling access to content, and only four percent want the government to hold the reins to such a system.

A different survey by Netspace found that only 6.3 percent of those surveyed agreed with the proposed policies. Internet users in Australia are (still) against the filtering legislation; perhaps if more senators have second thoughts, Australia won't start taking the first steps down the road trod mostly, until now, by countries like China.

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