On the House: Light-handed, schmight-handed

Expediency can be a dangerous thing when it becomes the philosophy of GovernmentAnyone looking to support the argument that in Australia politics often gets in the way of good government needs only to point to the Howard Government's wooing of independent Senator Brian Harradine.

Almost since coming to power in 1996 Communications Minister Senator Alston and his cohorts have been pushing the message that the Government would maintain a "light-handed" approach to e-commerce regulation.

The sentiment was endorsed by The Attorney General's Electronic Commerce Expert Group ("ECEG") March 1988 report: Electronic Commerce: Building the Legal Framework. The report fully supported the Government's views that Australia should adopt a minimalist legislative approach to e-commerce.

Using as its starting point the 1996 United Nations Commission on International Trade Law's Model Law for Electronic Commerce, the report recommended that Federal law should be high level and technology neutral. Not only did the Government endorse the report but has also used it as a blueprint for numbers of initiatives and statements since.

Then in January it issued for public comment its draft Electronic Transactions Bill, now due to be debated in the Budget session of Federal Parliament, which legal experts agree is consistent with the government's policy of being "light-handed" and of not interfering with relationships between people.

How things changed when suddenly the Government feared it would lose Harradine's support for the sale of at least a further 16 per cent of Telstra. Suddenly a light-handed approach was inadequate for protecting our children against the evils of the Net. Suddenly Alston was announcing new Net censorship measures that some in the Internet community consider little short of draconian.

It is of concern enough that the decision breaches a promise from the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) that there would be community and Net consultation prior to legislation. Equally worrying is the fact that it completely ignores the technical advice the Government itself commissioned from the CSIRO and the fear the measures will have the ultimate effect of slowing the adoption of electronic commerce in Australia.

Certainly the CSIRO report Blocking Content on the Internet: a Technical Perspective, had already told it -- if it was in the mood to listen -- that the measures were unlikely to be effective. CSIRO had made clear it was easy to rename and unblock blocked sites and that a blacklist of sites would be difficult to create, could be bypassed and would be a target for hackers.

Perhaps the announcement then was just a cynical attempt to woo Harradine with promises of action the Government had no intention to keep. But if it was sincerely made, all Australians should be concerned about measures that could, if made to work, limit Australia's access to something we don't even have enshrined in our constitution as a right: the ability to speak freely and access the words of others freely, unfettered by government controls.

How easily things do change when expediency becomes the name of the game.

Sue Bushell is a Canberra-basedpolitical correspondent

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