Australia makes top 4 of internet freedom list

But limits on content and violation of user rights drag rating down

Australia has scored highly for internet freedom in its first appearance on a Freedom House report into 37 countries, but violation of user rights and lack of access for some users were cited as concerns.

Freedom House is a US-based private organisation which publishes surveys on subjects such as press freedom, political rights and civil liberties.

The report, entitled Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media (PDF), placed Australia in fourth place behind Germany, the US and Estonia.

Countries received a score from 0 for the most free to 100 for the least free. Demerit points for obstacles to access, content limits and violation of user rights - including government moves to block applications - filtering and blocking of websites, surveillance, privacy and legal prosecution for online activity - were awarded.

For example, Australia's score was 18 while Iran received the worst score of 89.

A previous Freedom on the Net report published in 2009 examined 15 countries, with Estonia in the number one position and Cuba in last place.

In the 2011 report, Freedom House outlined that the Australian government had adopted a strong policy of technical neutrality, with no limits to the amount of bandwidth that internet service providers (ISPs) can supply.

"While the government does not place restrictions on bandwidth, ISPs are free to adopt internal market practices on traffic shaping," the report said. "Some Australian ISPs practice traffic shaping under what are known as fair-use policies.

"If a customer is a heavy peer-to-peer user, the internet connectivity for those activities will be slowed down to free bandwidth for other applications."

However, the organisation raised concerns about an election law passed in the state of South Australia in January 2010.

Under the law, any individual posting a political comment in the run-up to local elections would be required to do so with their real name and address.

"The law applied to blogs and online news sites and non-compliance would draw a fine of up to $AUD1,250 ($US1,230)," the report said. "Following a public outcry, the state’s attorney general and premier agreed to repeal the law.

"This compulsory data retention policy, if enacted, could become a great threat to online freedom in Australia. The document is not official policy in Australia nor has it evolved into a concrete proposal or bill."

As of December 2010, it was "unclear" whether such a policy would be realised in Australia stated the report.

Freedom House also drew attention to the proposed mandatory filtering system run through ISPs.

"Draft legislation was proposed under the Labor government led by Kevin Rudd, but was then put aside in the run-up to elections held in August 2010," the documents said.

"Under the previously proposed draft, the list of sites to be blocked would initially focus on images of child abuse, particularly child pornography.

"The Australia Communications Media Authority (ACMA) would have the responsibility of maintaining the blacklist, but the criteria for blocking sites remained nebulous.

"Under the latest proposal, the ACMA would blacklist any content classified as restricted, and its early trials of internet filters used an initial list of over 1,300 sites."

Freedom House praised the move to roll out the National Broadband Network (NBN) as it would remove obstacles to access, particularly for indigenous people.

Approximately 50 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in indigenous communities (not major cities) have access to the internet, with 36 per cent having access in the home.

"Wireless systems can reach 99 per cent of the population, while satellite capabilities are able to reach 100 percent," the report said.

"The phasing out of dialup continues, with nearly 90 per cent of internet connections now provided through other means.

"Once implemented, the NBN will eliminate the need for any remaining dial-up connections and make high-speed broadband available to Australians in remote and rural areas."

Got a security tip-off? Contact Hamish Barwick at hamish_barwick at

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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