This may look like an Australian story. It is that, but it’s bigger, because it is significant for citizens of any democratic country and others who cherish democratic principles.

The new Australian government has announced stringent new controls over the Internet.

According to the report on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s site, Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Telecommunications, announced today that “it will be mandatory for all Internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material”.

He disagreed with those who are likening this mandatory censorship regime to the Chinese Government’s approach to exercising control over access to the Internet.

Yes, people can opt out of the filtering. But why should law-abiding citizens have to opt out? And for those of us who are as appalled as any decent person by child pornography but are also students of world history, the question must surely arise that the precedent having been set, what will this government, or a future government, next decide we must be protected from?

How soon will the Government start stretching the definition of “inappropriate material”. Will that include criticism of the Government’s policy on this issue, or on, say, counter-terrorism policy?

And if you opt out, not for any nefarious reasons but because, say, you don’t want the filters slowing down your access to the Internet, will that put you on a watch list for the Federal police?

The pre-election rhetoric of the Australian Labor Party gave a clear indication that the new Australian Government, led by Kevin Rudd, would be much more likely than its predecessors to create or nurture a more Internet-connected environment for business and education. There were promises about real broadband and about providing more computers for schoolchildren.

No doubt some of the rhetoric was simplistic, but I for one felt there were good signs of a government which would support and assist progress with the online environment. Yes, there was the policy to restrict access so that children would be protected: I suppose in retrospect my attitude to that was unduly Pollyanna-ish – I thought that once in government, well-informed public servants would brief the new Minister on the negative implications, in technical and policy terms, of going ahead the the proposed controls.

Silly me. I forgot that modern-day politicians see no votes in upholding civil liberties when a legislative knout can be wielded so as to appease pressure groups.

So now we have this clumsy move to censor the internet, pilloried by Duncan Riley in a Techcrunch post, Australia Joins China in Censoring the Internet, with comments and observations that I for one find rather more convincing than the Honourable Senator’s claim, as above, about the link to the Chinese Government’s approach to the Internet.

As Duncan mentions also, there is the additional cost burden on ISPs – a burden which will surely be passed on to the users, already heavily slugged for our Internet access.

A Facebook group has been established for those opposed to mandatory Internet filtering.

Protect the children? Absolutely. But this is not the way, especially for a Government pledged to help those very children have a brighter future, in part because of more effective and productive access to the online world.

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