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Sweeping Net restrictions in Australia

In a setback to Net free speech, a sweeping law has been approved in Australia to stamp out online material involving drugs, sex, violence, nudity, and obscene language.

    In a setback to Net free speech, a sweeping law has been approved in Australia to stamp out online material involving drugs, sex, violence, nudity, and obscene language.

    Following its Senate, Australia's House passed legislation yesterday to include the Net under its Broadcasting Services Act 1992 ratings for film and video, which are similar to movie ratings in the United States but go much further.

    The Australian law states that minors cannot view online material rated "R." However, the law also bans all citizens' access to X-rated material that has "real depictions of actual sexual intercourse" and deletes content rated "RC" for "refused classification," which applies to material that "incites" violence or depicts acts that "offend against the standards of morality, decency, and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults."

    Under the legislation, the Australian Broadcasting Authority would monitor for compliance and take complaints. The agency would call on Net access providers to monitor their networks and close sites suspected of violating the law.

    Australia has been on the forefront of dealing with controversial Net activity. For example, the nation has taken steps to regulate cybercasinos in lieu of shutting them down.

    But with its new online content restrictions, Australia has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups, who say it is the strictest law to date. The proposed restrictions are more stringent than those of other nations that have taken a socially conservative approach to the Internet, such as Malaysia and Singapore.

    "The Australian government will become an international laughingstock when the bill's censorship regime comes into force after January 1 of next year," Electronic Frontier Australia executive director Darce Cassidy said in a statement. "It will quickly become obvious that national governments are powerless to effectively control information on a worldwide communication system and that the legislation is incapable of protecting children."

    In protest, the EFA is calling for the resignation of Sen. Richard Alston, Australia's minister for communications, information technology, and the arts. Alston introduced the bill on grounds that the government has a duty to regulate online content and that ISPs should help in that goal.

    "The [bill] meets the Australian community's legitimate concern to control the publication of illegal and offensive material online, but without placing onerous or unjustifiable burdens on the Internet industry and thus inhibiting the development of the online economy," Alston said when he introduced the bill in April.