Australia's Conroy named Internet Villain of the Year

Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy has come under fire from Australian citizens and digital activists around the world for his attempts to increase Internet filtering in Australia.

This week, the UK Internet Service Providers' Association awarded Conroy the dubious honor of being the Internet Villain of the Year for "continuing to promote network-level blocking despite significant national and international opposition."

Since Conroy's December 2007 announcement that the Australian government would begin filtering, Conroy's efforts to censor the Internet have taken multiple forms. His initial plan included a mandatory filter list of as many as 10,000 sites. The blocklist included the expected child pornography, but also "euthanasia sites, abortion sites, regular porn sites, and a site containing harmless Bill Henson photographs," according to a previous ONI report. One conservative political party suggested that content portraying hardcore sex and drug behaviors also be added to the blocklist, even though adults can legally view such content offline.

The proposed filtering was initially designed to operate under a two-tiered system: the first tier included illegal content, which would be mandatorily blocked; customers who wanted access to adult content could "opt out" of the second tier. Critics argued this plan would create a list of Australians who had sought out such content, a list that could potentially be misused by the government. Conroy later backed down, and the current filtering plan will block illegal content, while allowing customers who want to block adult content to opt in to more extensive filtering at the ISP level.

The plan has still drawn ire from Internet users. Writing for the Courier Mail, Paul Syvret notes:

This was sold as an attempt to free Australia from the scourges of child pornography, terrorism and so forth.

The great logical fallacy of that argument is that those who trade in child porn or bombmaking recipes don't do so in the public domain but swap their information on obscure message boards or by way of peer-to-peer file-sharing sites.

Children's rights groups agree, saying blocking child porn will drive it further underground, make offenders harder to catch. Speaking to Australian IT, National Children's & Youth Law Centre director James McDougall said, "The tens of millions of dollars that such a scheme will cost should instead be diverted to appropriate child protection authorities and police to prevent the abuse of children."

Other critics worry about the content of the blocklist, which remains a closely guarded secret. During a speech in March, Conroy attempted to explain the presence of seemingly non-threatening sites, including those of a dog breeder and a dentist, by blaming the Russian mafia.

Despite widespread condemnation of the filtering scheme — including efforts by activist group GetUp, whose supporters raised AUD30,000 (USD23,310) in a single day to fight the plan, Conroy has continued to push for greater censorship.

His latest move, announced in June, is an attempt to extend censorship to the realm of online and downloadable games. Australia currently bans the sale of any games that include "excessive violence or sexual content." The censorship proposal would block access to sites that allow users to download adult games.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Electronic Frontiers Australia spokesman Colin Jacobs said, "Far from being the ultimate weapon against child abuse, [the filtering plan] now will officially censor content deemed too controversial for a 15-year-old. In a free country like ours, do we really need the government to step in and save us from racy web games?"

If Conroy's recent award is any indication, the government's answer is yes. Whether Conroy's plan will succeed amidst local and international uproar, however, remains to be seen.