Protesters in Perth demonstrate against Australia's plan to filter the internet. Protests also popped up in Sydney, Australia's biggest city.  (Source: WA Today)

More protesters rally in Sydney, Australia.  (Source: itNews)
Proponents say its all in the name of protecting children; could similar laws come to the U.S.?

Most societies have laws or traditions to protect children from exploitation.  However, modern society is grappling with what to do when implementing such laws introduces government-sponsored censorship of the media and online world.

In China, such practices are well publicized and long standing. However, Australia and France have quietly taken steps to adopt similar internet filtering, both on the grounds of piracy and child protection.

In Australia, the Labour party has defied critics on the left and right and repeatedly tried to enact legislation to censor the internet, filtering out what it deems harmful websites such as those hosting content that depicted or condoned child exploitation.  Such legislation was considered to expensive and overreaching, and was shot down in 2008.

However, in December 2009, the legislation was reborn; this time the government agreed to public trials that would shape the final bill, raising its likelihood of approval.  Meanwhile, the government is pursuing other means to censor offensive material; the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) actively is using takedown notices and threats of fines to prevent Australian-hosted sites from linking to a blacklist of prohibited sites.

In France the debate is similarly raging.  The French Assembly passed a bill entitled "Bill on direction and planning for the performance of domestic security" last Tuesday.  The bill contained provisions to filter internet traffic to filter out child pornography.  It passed by a 312-214 vote.  The bill now awaits a reading in the Senate, in which the government, who sponsored the bill, has a majority -- in other words it looks likely to pass, and soon.

Both the Australian and the French legislation would force ISPs to filter their traffic, a potentially expensive proposition.   Some are opposing it on a grounds of its scope.  Google, which filters sites that promote child exploitation, criticized the Australian legislation in a blog, characterizing it as too broad.  It writes:

At Google we are concerned by the Government's plans to introduce a mandatory filtering regime for Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Australia, the first of its kind amongst western democracies.* Our primary concern is that the scope of content to be filtered is too wide.
Exposing politically controversial topics for public debate is vital for democracy. Homosexuality was a crime in Australia until 1976 in ACT, NSW in 1984 and 1997 in Tasmania. Political and social norms change over time and benefit from intense public scrutiny and debate. The openness of the Internet makes this all the more possible and should be protected.

Others criticize it as being too hard to implement accurately.  According to the legal sex industry in Australia, many filters mistake small breasted women for minors and block legitimate adult entertainment.

Protesters have fought the legislation via a variety of means.  Last week protesters demonstrated in Sydney, Australia's most populous city.  They unfurled flags and handed out materials pointing out the bill's flaws.  Online, the group Anonymous fought the legislation in a much more destructive manner, using distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks to cripple government sites.  States a group member, "The Australian government will learn that one does not mess with our porn."

Ultimately, both the French and the Australian filtering proposals raise a common question.  With support mounting in industrialized "free" (democratic) nations internationally, could the U.S. become the next to embrace such internet censorship?  As unbelievable as it sounds, some are already calling for similar government legislation to force ISPs to monitor traffic for infringed materials.  As much as the U.S. strives to be a leader and not a follower, a lot hinges on how the plans in Australia, France succeed -- or don't.

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