Time

By Marina Kamenev / Sydney Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2010

The concept of government-backed web censorship is usually associated with nations where human rights and freedom of speech are routinely curtailed. But if Canberra's plans for a mandatory Internet filter go ahead, Australia may soon become the first Western democracy to join the ranks of Iran, China and a handful of other nations where access to the Internet is restricted by the state.

Plans for a mandatory Internet filter have been a long-term subject of controversy since they were first announced by Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, in May 2008 as part of an $106 million "cybersafety plan." The plan's stated purpose is to protect children when they go online by preventing them from stumbling on illegal material like child pornography. To do this, Conroy's Ministry has recommended blacking out about 10,000 websites deemed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to be so offensive that they are categorized as 'RC,' or Refused Classification. (See pictures of Chinese mourning the loss of Google.)

The government won't reveal an official list of the URLs on the current blacklist, but Conroy's office says it includes sites containing child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. "Under Australia's existing [laws] this material is not available in news agencies, it is not on library shelves, you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema and it is not shown on television," Conroy's office e-mailed in a statement. But in March 2009, when a 2,395-site blacklist was leaked to Wikileaks, an online clearinghouse for anonymous submissions, it seemed confusingly broad, containing, among others, the websites of a dentist from Queensland, a pet-care facility in Queensland, and a site belonging to a school cafeteria consultant.

At the time, Conroy told the Sydney Morning Herald that any Australians involved in the leak could face criminal charges. "No one interested in cyber safety would condone the leaking of this list," he said.