Content monitoring a costly exercise: Upton

Monitoring the content of almost 700 Australian Internet service providers (ISPs) under the controversial Internet content legislation would be an almost impossible task and could ultimately lead to increased costs, according to a peak industry body.

Peter Upton, executive director of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), said the cost of installing effective blocking measures could almost double the capital costs of an ISP's infrastructure -- a cost that would undoubtedly be passed on to end users.

"I would like to think people are thoroughly cognisant of the costs and the fact that it could be against the national interest," Upton said.

In federal parliament last week the Senate gave the thumbs up to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services Bill) 1999, which will see the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) regulating, monitoring and blocking what the federal government calls "pornographic, violent or other offensive" Web sites, newsgroups and databases.

Under the law, the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) would be responsible for regulating Internet content.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for debate, where it is expected to be passed without difficulties.

Senator Richard Alston, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, said the bill was a "new law for new problems in a sunrise industry".

"The bill does do what it is possible for an Australian government to do," Alston said. He conceded the law would not be 100 per cent effective but the government would "remain vigilant to ensure it is as effective as possible".

"When the government introduced this Bill, we made clear that the legislation alone could not provide full protection for children, but was a necessary component of a comprehensive ongoing program including end-user filters, education, and industry Codes of Practice," Alston said.

A spokesperson for Senator Alston explained the law was designed to regulate ISPs, while regulation of content creators would remain the responsibility of states and territories. The maximum penalty for an ISP that fails to take down offensive content in the required timeframe is $27,500.

However, Upton said the AIIA was not confident in the technical filtering measures available to ISPs.

"We wanted to see an emphasis on educating parents about the availability of user-level software filters," he said.

"The [Australian] legislature seems not to want to believe that parents ultimately have to accept responsibility," he said.

Upton said governments in the US, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and China had all taken differing measures to control Internet content.

"Part of that is the fact that all over the world, governments are trying to respond to this concerned citizenry saying 'there's some pretty nasty stuff out there'.

"They had a go in the US in the Communications Decency act about 18 months ago. "It got struck down in the High Court because it took the view it was a breach of the constitutional right to the freedom of speech."

Under the British system, content providers can be "thumped" by police if they refuse to take down offensive material, Upton said.

The amended bill:

** establishes a complaints-based, legal regime using existing systems and methods of classifying content, administered by the Australian Broadcasting Authority, to regulate the carriage of content over the Internet; ** ensures that ISPs are not, in the first instance, liable for material carried on their service, but that primary responsibility for such material lies with the creator of the material;** ensures that, once notified of the existence of illegal or highly offensive material on their service, ISPs have a responsibility to remove, or block, access to such material;** ensures that, in the case of overseas-hosted material, ISPs develop a Code of Practice which sets out the "reasonable steps" that an ISP will take to block access to illegal or highly offensive overseas-hosted material;** provides that the ABA, rather than a service provider, will be the first point of contact for complaints about Internet content; ** establishes a community/industry body to monitor online material, to provide advice about the complaints mechanism, to provide community education and information and to operate a public complaints "hotline" to receive information from the public about offensive material and to pass on this information to the ABA and to relevant law enforcement agencies in Australia or overseas.

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