Australia Offers Parents Filtering Software

Joanne Cachapero
SYDNEY — As of Monday, Australian parents will be able to download filters designed to block children from accessing adult content on the Internet. Parents also can order the filtering program on CD and a hotline offering advice on how to manage Internet safety also will be operational.

The filtering technology is part of a $189 million initiative being implemented under the auspices of NetAlert, which is Australia’s Internet safety advisory commission. There has been speculation that the initiative is part of a campaign by Prime Minister John Howard and the conservative Coalition parties to appeal to Christian voters. In a webcast broadcast last week to 700 churches and an estimated 100,000 church members, Howard explained the economic breakdown of the Protecting Australian Families Online program.

$71.8 million dollars is to go to the filtering program available for use in private homes and public libraries across Australia. Parents can choose to install the filters on their PCs or call their ISP providers to request a “clean” connection, which would block pornographic content at the ISP level, though the government anticipated it would take time for ISP providers to put the plan into action. The government has examined ISP filtering three times since 1999.

The Australian Communications and Media (ACMA) is planning an ISP filtering trial in Tasmania, the success of which will determine the government’s implementation of that part of the initiative.

The government also will post a list of all approved filtering software on its website, and had also mandated that sanctioned software vendors keep products updated to deal with changing threats.

The Protecting Australian Families Online Program also will dedicate $18.6 million to an expanded publicity campaign that will increase public awareness and add 10 new ACMA officers who will visit schools to educate children about online safety.

The Online Child Exploitation Team will receive $36.8 million in funding to add 36 newly hired agents over the next year, bringing the a total of 90 “web police” to the agency. The funding also is in anticipation of increased prosecutions due to having more investigators on the job.

On Aug. 19, TheAge.com reported that hardcore images were viewable at several public libraries located in the cities of Stonnington, Maribyrnong, Port Phillip and Melbourne as of last week.

A recent study conducted by the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) indicated that many libraries were opposed to filtering based on "experience, professional ethics and sense of purpose of libraries."

ALIA Vice President Derek Whitehead said filtering technologies often block legitimate websites and that, when implemented, libraries received almost as many complaints about ponderous filter programs as they did about offensive material.

State Library Director Sue Hamilton said various issues were raised in the argument between free access to Internet content and preventing inappropriate exposure to explicit materials. She pointed out that individuals viewing explicit content in public libraries were subject to ejection and being banned from accessing library computers.

“People have the right to free and equal access to information and that is a principle supported by our board. It's a tricky question. [Porn] is a very broad umbrella and people's tolerance of looking at material is different,” Hamilton said.

“We think the interference with people's legitimate research outweighs the not-very-effective protection that you get from the filters that are available. But I would say if we had an effective filtering system that excluded pornography we would need to consider what our position was,” Hamilton said.