Bitter row between USA and Australia (update)

US ambassador speaks out against attempts to impose ISP blacklists

The ongoing and bitter row over Australian federal government attempts to censor the internet, which recently saw US intervention and meetings in Washington DC with Australian politicians (see previous InfoPowa reports) is generating growing pressure on the Rudd government.

A wide range of Australian mainstream media are currently reporting on the negative reaction of the Obama administration to the censorship attempts, which involve ISPs blocking a questionable blacklist supplied by an Australian government communications agency.

The Sydney Morning Herald and other major Aussie newspapers like The Age and the Brisbane Courier-Mail reported that earlier this month the US ambassador to Australia, Jeff Bleich criticised the Rudd government's internet filtering proposal, saying the same goals can be achieved without censorship.

Speaking on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program, Bleich said the "internet has to be free" and that there were other means of combating bad content.

"We have been able to accomplish the goals that Australia has described," he said. "We have other means and we are willing to share our efforts with them ... it's an ongoing conversation."

Bleich added: "The internet needs to be free. It needs to be free the way we have said the skies have to be free, outer space has to be free, the polar caps have to be free, the oceans have to be free. They're shared resources of all the people of the world."

Simon Sheikh, chief executive of the online activist group GetUp, supported Bleich’s comments, calling on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to "step in and end this farce".

"The US ambassador is the latest to join the swelling ranks opposing the scheme, which now include Google, Yahoo, Save The Children, Reporters Without Borders, The Greens, Senator Nick Xenophon, and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey," he said.

"Over 120,000 Australians have joined GetUp's campaign against the internet filter, and polls show 86 per cent of Australians are concerned about the government's internet filter plans."

Queensland Liberal Senator Sue Boyce has pressured the Rudd government to be more forthcoming with the content of its “talks” with the United States on the issue. In a letter to Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, she demanded that full details of its discussions with the US be made public.

Foreign Minister Smith elected to act as traffic cop, simply referring the matter to Communication Minister Stephen Conroy's office, where a spokeswoman merely confirmed press reports that Australian and US officials "have met in Washington to discuss the issue recently".

The spokeswoman would not reveal further details of the discussions but said, "Australia is not alone in its approach and we applaud the European Commission that announced just last week that it would require members states to ensure that websites containing child pornography are blocked."

Conroy remains committed to the proposed legislation, and said that the US State Department had requested "background information only" on the filtering policy.

"I find it difficult to reconcile a statement that the US government had 'raised concerns' with Minister Conroy's assertion that the US government had only asked for 'background information'," Boyce commented.

"It is a deplorable situation when Australians have to rely upon the frankness of a foreign diplomat to provide information about bilateral discussions on a very important matter because relevant Australian ministers either dissemble or just refuse to say anything."

Media reports have pointed out that, unlike the system in some other countries, which is typically limited to child porn, the Australian model to block internet content unilaterally deemed unsuitable is much broader and will cover innocuous material. And the internet blacklist will not give citizens the chance to find out what is censored and why.

Lake Macquarie councillor Anthony Birt, has written to Liberal MPs imploring them to oppose the legislation, say the filter will not address the major cyber safety concerns of parents. He said parents who were concerned about content their children were viewing online could already install software filters and website blockers on their computers.

"While not achieving its major objective, this system will simultaneously restrict free speech and access to legal content and controversial material on the internet, in a secret way behind closed doors with no accountability," Birt wrote.

Colin Jacobs, chairman of the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said he was mystified as to why trying to regulate the global internet like an Australian newsagent was a priority for the government.

"As the dialogue with the US indicates, trying to do so is doomed to fail and completely ignores the enormous benefits we reap from keeping the internet open," Jacobs said.

"They are now defending the policy on the basis that it will stop people 'accidentally' stumbling across abhorrent material. That's an astoundingly weak justification for more censorship, and the filter won't even be able to accomplish that."

Conroy has continued to defend his censorship proposal, describing it as a modest regulatory measure that will combat illegal activity.

"For all its technical brilliance, the internet is a distribution and communications platform. Having no regulation to combat illegal activity actually weakens all that is good about the internet," he said.

"This is a modest measure, which reflects long-held community standards about the type of content that is unacceptable in a civilised society," he said.

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