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Australia debates laws for the Net

The Australian government is considering regulations to govern Internet content.

As U.S. free-speech advocates celebrate last week's derailment of the Communications Decency Act, the issue of objectionable material on the Internet is heating up on yet another front: Australia.

The attorneys general of the eight Australian territories will meet in July to consider nationwide adoption of Internet censorship regulations proposed in April by Attorney General John Shaw of New South Wales. The proposal follows attempts by two Australian territorial parliaments to enact regulation of online content.

Even though regulations are only at the proposal stage, they are already drawing strong reaction. The online rights group Electronic Frontiers Australia has recently launched a campaign called STOP! to encourage Australian Internet users to contact their state attorneys general and protest.

Shaw has targeted what he describes as "the proliferation of offensive material--such as pornography and sexually explicit games--on the Internet." If the law is approved, access providers or Internet users found guilty of "transmission of, permitting access to and retrieval of, and advertising of such material" would be punished with up to two years' imprisonment.

The proposal defines objectionable as anything that would "depict, express, or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence, or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency, and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults."

Shaw's critics argue that the proposed law would force Internet service providers to monitor their customers' email and other online activity, as well as expose users to potential blackmail and harassment.

Australia is only the latest of many countries wrestling with regulation of the booming Internet and the vast stores of information it delivers, usually with little or no outside scrutiny before going online for millions to see. In Europe, German and French police have taken action against Internet access providers because of child pornography, while Asian countries such as China, Singapore, and Vietnam point to national, political and cultural interests as a reason to monitor or curb access to the global network within their borders.

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Asian countries face Net paradox