This can't be the way that Australia wanted it. One day after Google announced its decision to stop censoring its search results in China, the Australian government released the results of a public consultation on its own Internet censorship proposal. Predictably, Google has some objections (PDF), including its oblique comment that Australia's mandatory filtering scheme could "confer legitimacy upon filtering by other Governments."
"Australia is rightly regarded as a liberal democracy that balances individual liberty with social responsibility," continues the Google filing. "The Governments of many other countries may justify, by reference to Australia, their use of filtering, their lack of disclosure about what is being filtered, and their political direction of agencies administering filtering."
Google is unlikely to come right out and compare Australia to China, but the implication is obvious—and has been made explicit by other groups. Reporters Without Borders said recently that Australia would "be joining an Internet censors' club that includes such countries as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia."
What's being blocked
Australia does not currently impose a mandatory content filtering system on the Internet, but government censors do enforce takedown notices against ISPs hosting certain kinds of material.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is currently authorized to drop the banhammer on a wide range of content. All content classed as RC (Refused Classification) or X 18+ is prohibited online in Australia, including "real depictions of actual sexual activity, child pornography, depictions of bestiality, material containing excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use, and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act."
R 18+ material (comparable to a hard R rating in the US) can be shown on the Internet, but only when it's behind a "restricted access system that prevents access by children."
Finally, MA 15+ (roughly comparable to PG-13/R material in the US) content is restricted on mobile devices unless it's behind a similar restricted access system.
For the last couple of years, the Australian government has been running trials on a new approach to censoring online content. Instead of maintaining a relatively small blacklist of content and serving only takedown notices, the government wants to move to a mandatory and proactive filtering system that every ISP must implement. For some time there was ambiguity about what material would be included in the filter.
The government finally made an official proposal in December 2009, where it made clear that only RC material would be included. This filter would be less restrictive (but more proactive) than the current regime, and it would apply to sites outside of Australia by blocking access, something the ACMA system could not do.
Even with the system limited to RC content, however, Google and others have real concerns about what would be blocked.
Everyone in the debate appears to agree that blocking depictions of child sex abuse is a legitimate government function. Google notes that such limited Internet blocks have been implemented or are being considered in the UK, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and New Zealand, and it raises the question of why Australia is ready to go "well beyond that scope to the much wider category of RC."
All sorts of things can be refused classification in Australia, which makes them illegal to offer for sale. The category includes sexual violence, child pornography, and the like, but it can go far beyond these. Google cites a report by three Australian professors which noted that RC material could include "socially and politically controversial material" regarding drug use, abortion, and euthanasia.
Because Australia's constitution does not contain blanket support for freedom of expression, instead offering a more limited freedom of political discourse), Google argues that "there is a significant risk that filtering applied today to RC content could readily be extended by future governments to other forms of expression, whether related to sexual content or violence or not."
In addition, the proposed filtering system only applies to URLs. In its filing, the Australian Library and Information Association pointed out to the government the scheme "does not protect children against pornographic activities in the areas of peer-to-peer networking, instant messaging, torrents, direct emails and chat rooms. Most undesirable content is transmitted in these ways rather than from normal websites." The librarians also worry about the secret nature of the blacklist.
"Irrational, impractical, undemocratic, authoritarian"?
To its credit, one goal of the current inquiry is to make the process for censoring material more fair, more accountable, and more transparent. Critics continue to argue that "transparency" would be unneeded if the government would just scrap the entire filtering initiative. This viewpoint was summed up by an anonymous Australian who signed himself "Terry, optimistically a citizen of a rational and civilized state."
"There would be no need for the additional and additionally expensive measures to increase transparency and accountability arrangements if we did not implement this flawed censorship scheme," he wrote. "Censoring the internet is irrational, impractical, undemocratic, authoritarian, expensive and unnecessary."
On that last point, the librarians agree, saying that "the proposed filter sets a dangerous precedent of centralised internet censorship. Censorship and limitations on the free flow of information undermine democratic society and strengthen the cause of those who seek to destroy it. The most effective way to preserve democratic society is by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions and ideas so that all individuals have the opportunity to be informed."
Google keeps its own language modest, though it does say that company employees have spoken with Australian parents about the issue. "The strong view from parents was that the Government's proposal goes too far and would take away their freedom of choice around what information they and their children can access," says the company's filing.
And if the Australian government thinks it can pressure private sites like YouTube into voluntarily blocking content (filtering URLs for a service as popular as YouTube can cause real problems), it can think again. Unless a video violates Google policies or is the target of a court order, "we will not remove material from YouTube."
Google is on fire right now, wow.