First, China. Next: the Great Firewall of... Australia?

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Rob Griffith / AP

Customers at an Internet cafe in Sydney, Australia, on March 24, 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.

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.

Since then, criticism of the proposed Internet filter has escalated. "Nobody likes it," says Scott Ludlam, a senator from the Australian Greens Party. "Everyone from the communications industry to child protection rights and online civil liberties groups think this idea is deeply flawed." Throughout 2009 GetUp!, an internet-based political activism organization, launched an advertising campaign to raise public awareness about the government's proposal. (That July, the advertisement the group made was banned from screenings on Qantas domestic flights into Canberra.) In February, Anonymous, a community of Internet users, which include hackers, shut down the Australian Parliament's web site in their second attack against the filter, which they called "Operation: Titstorm" — a reference to the sexual content that the filter will be blocking. Save the Children has questioned the efficacy of the filter in protecting children, and in March, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders listed Australia as a country that's "under surveillance" in its annual "Internet Enemies" report, which rounds up the "worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net."

But the most high-profile criticism of the filter has so far been from net giants Google and Yahoo. In March, Google wrote to the Australian government with concerns that the scope of the filter was too wide. The search engine also warned it may slow down search speed. "Filtering may give a false sense of security to parents, it could damage Australia's international reputation, and it can be easily circumvented," the California company wrote in a submission to Conroy's Department of Broadband Communications and Digital Economy.

On June 6, the Australian government launched a police investigation into the activities of Google in Australia, accusing the company of collecting private information while taking photographs for their Street View Service, which offers a panoramic view of any catalogued street. In comments that he has denied were spurred by Google's complaints about his cybersafety program, Conroy has called Google's privacy policy "creepy," and described their collecting of unsecured private information as "the biggest single breach of privacy in history." Google has admitted to accidentally collecting fragments of data from unsecured wi-fi networks in its global operations.

Indeed, only a cluster of Christian groups and child safety advocates have come out as supporting the filter. In a June 5 poll conducted on the web site of the Sydney Morning Herald, 99% of the 88,645 people who responded to the survey said they were against the Internet filter. Nevertheless, Conroy told the Sun-Herald in May that the policy "will be going ahead.'' He also accused groups like GetUp! of deliberately misleading the public. 'We are still consulting on the final details of the scheme. But this policy has been approved by 85% of Australian internet service providers, who have said they would welcome the filter, including Telstra, Optus, iPrimus and iinet.'' Iinet have since denied that it ever approved the scheme.

Many say the biggest problem with the plan is that it simply won't work. "I don¹t see the point of blocking a site that no one would have come across, and making the criminals aware of the fact they are being watched. I am much more interested in seeing the Australian Federal Police work with international law enforcement agencies in tracking the site," Ludham of the Greens Party says. Jarrod Trevathan, a technology lecturer and researcher at James Cook University, agrees. "Once people know their site is being blocked they will just open up another URL, and then the filter will have to block that URL. Eventually the blocked list will contain countless URLs which will drastically slow down the speed of the Internet." In May, ABC reported Conroy might consider, as part of his program, allowing child pornography websites to be temporarily left online to catch people maintaining or using them.

Still, it's hard to see why the government is pressing ahead with a scheme that, in the view of many, will do more harm than good. "It's like trying to ban burglaries by banning pictures of crowbars," says Geordie Guy, vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a non-profit national organization that has been vehemently opposed to the filter since it's conception. "You stop burglaries the same way you stop pedophilia — by catching the perpetrators. If the government closes these websites than the [Australian Federal Police] will find it harder to track the real criminals."