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Australia likely to pass strict content rules

The country is close to passing some of the world's strictest Net content rules by limiting access to material about drugs, sex, violence, or nudity, as well as obscene language.

Australia is close to passing some of the world's strictest Net content rules by limiting access to material about drugs, sex, violence, or nudity, as well as obscene language.

The Australian Senate passed legislation yesterday to include the Net under its Broadcasting Services Act 1992 for film and video.

The law states that minors can't view material rated "R" and that no one can access content rated "X" or "RC" for "refused classification."

The classifications would apply to content based overseas as well and are similar to movie ratings in the United States, with "X" applying to "real depictions of actual sexual intercourse."

But the Australian film ratings go further than those in the United States. For example, the "RC" rating even applies to material that "incites" violence or depicts acts that "offend against the standards of morality, decency, and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults."

The Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) would have to monitor for compliance and take complaints. Moreover, the ABA would call on Net access providers to monitor their networks and shut down sites suspected of violating the law.

Free speech watchdogs and ISPs are crying foul and are lobbying the Australian House to reject the bill, although it is expected to pass it.

"The government has turned Australia into the global village idiot," said Electronic Frontier Australia spokesperson Danny Yee. "Canada, the United States, and even Malaysia have taken a hands-off approach to the Internet."

Civil liberties groups still are trying to gauge the impact of the bill.

"It's not clear how film guidelines will apply to online content, but prima facie the bill will make textual depictions of explicit sex prohibited--making books that can be sold with no restrictions in bookshops illegal online," Yee added.

But when the bill was proposed, Australia's Minister for Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts, Sen. Richard Alston, said the government has a duty to regulate online content and that ISPs should help in the job.

"The government believes that this classification regime recognizes the widespread availability of the Internet to minors, and the technical difficulty of effectively blocking access to illegal and highly offensive material from all sites," Alston said in an earlier statement. "This regime is consistent with the content regulation regime for subscription services such as adult pay-TV services."