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Report Highlights Major Considerations in Australian Government Plans for Mandatory Internet Filtering

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Federal Government plans for mandatory internet filtering may see a wide range of material disappearing from Australian computer screens.

Untangling The Net: The Scope of Content Caught By Mandatory Internet Filtering reviews the Australian Government's plans for a mandatory internet filter.  It examines the nature and scope of content filtered under a mandatory regime, associated public policy implications, and flaws in existing regulatory frameworks. 

The report was prepared by leading Australian media public policy specialists and members of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Professors Catharine Lumby, Lelia Green, and John Hartley. 

Released today, the report is an independent study into the scope of content likely to be caught under the Federal Government plans for mandatory internet filtering. Its findings suggest that mandatory internet filtering will put Australia at odds with other Western liberal democracies who have opted almost unanimously for self or co-regulation.

According to the report, while mandatory internet filtering is conventionally framed as a tool to prevent child pornography access, the Government's policy will catch a far broader scope of content.

The authors also argue that it is time to review Australia's complex and inconsistent media content regulation system to take account of the online era. Said Professor Catharine Lumby, Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW: "The internet is not a medium: it is an entirely new media environment. We need to rethink our flawed and complex system of media content regulation to respond to this new era."

According to a consultation paper released yesterday by Minister Stephen Conroy the government will introduce legislation which will enable the creation of an RC (Refused Classification) list. Legislation will then be introduced to require all ISPs to mandatorily filter this list. Under the classification guidelines for RC content there is clear potential for a far wider range of material to be placed on this than clearly abhorrent categories of material such as child pornography or active incitement to violence.

While the study found clear public policy reasons for the Government denying access to information that might facilitate access to child pornography or compromise national security, the authors found that material that could potentially be deemed RC includes sites promoting public health initiatives such as harm minimisation in drug use, sites dealing with contentious political debates, and sites designed to give young people an opportunity to discuss sexuality and safe sexual practices.

Said Professor Lelia Green of Edith Cowan University: "Under mandatory filtering, the pool of internet content filtered will greatly increase, making it even more important that we pay attention to the scope of the content caught and the right of the public to know what they are being protected from."

Of a more immediate concern are questions about whether the community will have access to information about what is on the blacklist. The report recognises the complex particularities of the online world, the current flaws in Australian media regulation and the associated inconsistent treatment of online content and delivery compared to traditional media. With reference to international research, the report argues that Australia should apply a classification system that carefully balances the risks and opportunities of the online world.

Said Professor Lumby: "Australia needs to avoid simply applying our current flawed and inconsistent media content regulation regime to a media landscape that is still emerging. The challenges of this environment are equally an opportunity for our Federal Government to rethink media content regulation and to engage in a wide-ranging public discussion about how we move into the 21st century".


Report Authors

Professor Lelia Green is Professor of Communications in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Edith Cowan University, Perth. She is author of The Internet: An Introduction to New Media (Berg, forthcoming 2010) and Communication, Technology and Society (Sage, 2002) as well as numerous journal articles, papers and chapters on technology and social change. Funded by the Australian Research Council to carry out research into the Internet in Australian Family Life (2002-5), Lelia was subsequently appointed to the International Advisory Board for the European Union’s Safer Internet Plus Programme EU Kids Online project, 2006-9, analysing research relating to children’s use of the Internet across 21 EU countries. Lelia is a co-investigator in the Risk and Representation project of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation examining young people’s engagement with digital culture. 

Professor Catharine Lumby is the Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of NSW. The author and co-author of seven books, Catharine’s research expertise spans media content regulation, the social and cultural impact of media consumption, youth media consumption and gender studies. She recently published her research into the history of classification in Australia and into how we can prevent and detect the consumption and production of child pornography in The Porn Report (Melbourne University Press, 2008). She has also published widely on the question of how we balance the risks and opportunities posed by online media to children. Catharine sits on the Education and Welfare Committee of the National Rugby League. She works pro-bono for the NRL, in collaboration with Rape Crisis NSW, on educational initiatives designed to prevent violence and sexual violence.

Professor John Hartley is a Federation Fellow (Australian Research Council), and Research Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology. The author, co-author and editor of 20 books and many articles on culture, media, journalism and the creative economy – from the classic Reading Television to the most recent Uses of Digital Literacy – he is the founding editor of the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

The research on which the report is based: Untangling The Net: The Scope of Content Caught By Mandatory Internet Filtering  was supported by the Internet Industry Association of Australia.

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