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What the internet filter could mean for small business

The internet filter proposed by the Australian government was conceived for the purpose of targeting morally and legally questionable webpages; sites featuring illegal pornography, or sites instructing visitors with details about drugs or criminal activities. However, the filter also has the potential to harm small businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with such material.

The term ‘Refused Classification’, as outlined in the press release published by Senator for Broadband Stephen Conroy last December, implies only material that features ‘child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence including rape, and the detailed instruction of crime or drug use.’ In reality, the term could include anything that does not fit neatly into any of the above categories; for example, outlying unclassifiable sites, such as alternative religious or sexual practices, and the businesses associated with them, face the risk of being blacklisted.

Sites like these, whilst being far from appropriate for family consumption, are also a far cry from anything as unacceptable and illegal as child pornography.

Whilst the inclusion of such sites is arguable at best, other sites that are likely to be ‘Refused Classification’ include politically and socially sensitive or controversial material that promotes safe drug use, or that educates about euthanasia. The term could easily be used to blur the distinction between content that is universally offensive and content that is unacceptable/distasteful to a relative minority.

Another sizeable issue is with the extent of the filter. It is an enormous undertaking that will cost the Australian government tens of millions of dollars. Most importantly, the list of blacklisted sites appears as though it will be extensive. As of November 2008, the ACMA blacklist contained 1370 sites; by no means a definitive indication of the size of the list, although certainly a conservative one, given that the filter is only just beginning to be implemented now.

In order to remain accurate and effective, the blacklist will need to constantly change and grow to account for new sites containing ‘RC’ content. Policing and monitoring the sites featured on the list will be an endlessly exhaustive undertaking-and one that is inevitably prone to error.
This leads to the prospect of completely unobjectionable sites being black-listed for reasons quite beyond their control.

The list that leaked in early 2009 included a couple of decidedly unthreatening websites; namely those of a Queensland dentist’s practice, a tuck-shop operator, and of the owner of a kennel, all of which were mistakenly included amongst the piracy and pornography sites that the filter is meant to be targeting.

It would appear that even the slightest association with sites containing ‘RC’ material, regardless of the agency or intention of the website owner, is sufficient for inclusion on the blacklist. In the case of the Queensland dentist Dr. John Golbrani, the inclusion of his site came down to an attack by a Russian company posting pornographic listings on his company’s pages. The consequences of such an attack extend beyond the target site, to any other independent pages that provide links to it. Following March 2009, the ACMA threatened fines of up to $11,000 per day for anyone who linked to blacklisted sites.

According to Senator Conroy’s press release, once the Internet Filter is implemented, the sites to be blocked will be determined not by the government, but by an independent classification body incorporating a crowd-sourced public complaint process. This lends further weight to the argument against the vagueness of the term ‘Refused Classification’, as the public will be able to request the inclusion of sites that they find personally objectionable.

Quite apart from the issues that will arise for websites that may have at some stage been attacked by organizations of ill-repute, there is the inevitability that a nation-wide firewall will slow online industry enormously, possibly even negating the minimal benefits of Rudd’s (admittedly admirable, if unremarkable) national broadband network implementation.

The filter is clearly trying to achieve something laudable and positive for the Australian public. The task it is undertaking is too big to effectively achieve-especially given the proposed approach and associated classification system without exposing innocent websites and businesses to the possibility of being mistakenly blacklisted and fined. #

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