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  1. Technology
November 1, 1999

Authority Argues that Australian Net Censorship Is Justified

By CBR Staff Writer

By Rachel Chalmers

The deputy chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), Gareth Grainger, has made a speech justifying Australia’s new internet censorship legislation on the grounds that it will protect the public interest. Scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2000, the controversial new regulations extend the ABA’s power from the broadcast media to the internet. Members of the public will be able to appeal to the ABA if they encounter offensive content on the internet. The ABA will contact internet service providers as if they were television networks and require them to remove access to the material that caused the offense. The laws have been heavily criticized for placing an unfair burden on ISPs. Critics fear it could cause irreparable damage to Australia’s nascent internet content industry.

Not Grainger, who made his remarks as part of the 1999 Spry Memorial Lecture in Vancouver, Canada. Broadcasting and now the internet make use of public property, the airwaves and bandwidth, Grainger asserted, Broadcasting remains, and the internet is clearly emerging as, a means of mass communication of a particularly intrusive nature. They enter our homes and workplaces, exercise important influences on public life and national cultures. Their content has been and remains, the latest research confirms in relation to the internet, a matter of considerable concern to the public who wish to see national cultures preserved and enriched and to see young people protected from inappropriate material.

Grainger went on to say that the intervention of policy makers and legislators in internet content is essential to enforce public interest objectives. National parliaments in democratic systems such as those of Australia, the UK and Canada provide the one legitimate constitutional outlet for public concern and it is entirely appropriate that, even in an age of increasing internationalization of broadcasting and now the internet, it be national parliaments which set the rules for the regulation of these matters, he claimed. While paying lip service to the transnational nature of the internet, he continued to insist on the supremacy of national interests.

Grainger’s omission of the United States from his list of democratic systems was significant. As he explained later, he believes free speech is not necessarily a good thing. Whereas in the United States the US Constitution First Amendment allows the free speech lobby to dominate discussion about self-regulation, other countries with healthy democratic systems and vibrant processes of open expression are able to seek a more appropriate balance between the right to free expression and the right of communities to nurture national and local culture and to protect children from harmful content, he said.

Grainger did not explain exactly how broadcast-style content regulation of the internet will nurture local and national culture. If that’s simply the pretext for censoring unpopular information on the grounds that it may be harmful to children, it seems doomed to failure. The ready availability of international proxy servers make nationally-based content regimes difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. In the words of L Peter Deutsch, one of the inventors of SmallTalk: The internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it. á

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