Australia's net censorship and Operation Titstorm


Earlier today (10 February), hackers connected with the group Anonymous, launched an attack on Australian government websites, as a protest against proposed net censorship regulations. At time of writing, the Parliament of Australia's website was still down.

Anonymous, a loosely connected group of anonymous online pranksters that are known for their attacks on Scientology, dubbed the action as Operation Titstorm. The hackers have pledged to follow up by spamming government offices with pornographic emails, faxes and prank phone calls.

But will a DDoS attack help Australia's fight against net censorship? I don't think so. Australia is hell bent on becoming a nanny state and subsequently destroying Australia's Internet industry.

As an expat Australian, the direction the government has taken over Internet censorship has saddened, but not shocked me. This is a country famous for appointing Richard Alston, who the Register dubbed 'the world's biggest Luddite', as Minister of the Digital Economy. While in office, Alston famously tried to outlaw any online gambling whatsoever for Australian citizens, opposed the rollout of broadband, and wanted to make people legally responsible for anything they put on the net that was deemed not suitable for children (as decided by the police).

There has been a change of government since those times, and elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the Labor party has revived the debate on Interet censorship with a proposal for an internet filtering system that would supposedly prevent access to websites containing images of child pornography.

In theory, the idea of censoring certain content types such as child pornography, is a sound one. However, I've only read one article supporting this view, by Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, ANU.

Hamilton cites some statistics to support his idea that Australia's demographic majority support Internet censorship:

"In 2003 The Australia Institute commissioned Newspoll to ask a representative sample of Australian parents whether they would support a system that automatically filtered out internet pornography going into homes, unless adult users asked otherwise. An astonishing 93 per cent of parents were in favour, with only 5 per cent opposing it. In addition, 85 per cent expressed concern about their children seeing pornography on the internet with 61 per cent saying they are 'very concerned'."

Hamilton also employs an emotional argument that the segments of society that oppose net censorship show "contempt for children".

But Hamilton also overlooks the strong arguments against net censorship.

Firstly, Rudd government's cybersafety policy requires Internet service providers to filter out sexually related sites containing "harmful and inappropriate material". However, there is little detail on how this will work: Will ISPs block content delivered by a list of undesirable websites, or will they be required to scan incoming content in real time to analyse and determine which content should be allowed through. If the latter, how will this impact broadband performance, and what is the cost to the taxpayer?

Secondly, there is a lack of detail on what will constitute illegal content. Although the Government claims the scope is limited, net censorship laws could be extended in a harmful way to silence other groups. And what about future Australian governments, what will they consider to be worth censoring? The laws could be changed to censor any form of protest, and to discriminate against minority groups.

Brad Howarth at BusinessWeek quotes Dale Clapperton, chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a nonprofit group based in North Adelaide. "Once the system is in place there is a very real risk that any organisation with any kind of political clout is going to be lobbying for the scope of the system to be extended so as to encompass material that they have an objection to," Clapperton says. Clapperton's examples are the possible censorship of websites relating to abortion rights, gay rights and gay marriage.

China is held up as an example of a regime to heavily censor the Internet. This is a country where a Google image search for Tiananmen Square used to fail to show the iconic image from 1989 of a man standing in front of a line of tanks. [update: I've been told this isn't censored anymore. Progress!]

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