Age Verification in Australia

 Internet censorship hiding as age verification

22nd December

Age Old Censorship...

Australian internet and phone content to require age verification

New restrictions on online chatrooms, websites and mobile phone content will be introduced within a month to stop children viewing unsuitable material.

From January 20 new laws will be in effect, imposing tougher rules for companies that sell entertainment-related content on subscription internet sites and mobile phones.

It is the first time content service providers will have to check that people accessing MA15-plus content are aged over 15 years and those accessing R18-plus and X18-plus content are over 18.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will be able to force content providers to take down offensive material and issue notices for live content to be stopped and links to the content deleted.

But ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said adults will not be affected by the new laws: In developing these new content rules, ACMA was guided by its disposition to allow adults to continue to read, hear and see what they want, while protecting children from exposure to inappropriate content, regardless of the delivery mechanism .

Providers of live services, such as chatrooms, must have their service professionally assessed to determine whether its "likely content" should be restricted.

Personal emails and other private communications would be excluded from the new laws and so would news or current affairs services.


24th December

Update: Verifying Immature Legislation...

Australian internet and phone content to be self censored

The rules are meant to protect children from online content, but what the Communications Legislation Amendment (Content Services) Act of 2007 actually does is put a serious burden on adults to self-police, while making it much harder for online publishers to freely share their work. Worse yet, it's another misguided attempt to make the Internet into a playground for children where they won't need supervision.

Beginning January 20, anyone who publishes commercial content online or for mobile phones in Australia will be required to make sure that adult-oriented content isn't seen by minors. This isn't just porn we're talking about, either: the new rules essentially port Australia's movie ratings over to online content.

Once the new rules are enforced, content producers in Australia as well as Australian web surfers will have to live by these categories:

  • Sexually explicit content is prohibited (X18+, and Refused Classification content); this was already the case.
  • Softcore R18+ content must be hidden behind a verification service that checks for ages 18 and up.
  • So-called "mature audience" (MA15+) content must also be hidden behind a verification service that checks for ages 15 and up.
  • The ACMA will use "take down," "service cessation" and "link deletion" notices to force publishers to remove content or access to content that is the subject of a complaint.

One reader who contacted Ars lamented the fact that adults will have to give up a little privacy to be in compliance, too. Users will prove their age by supplying their full names and either a credit card or digital signature approved for online use. Content publishers are even required by law to keep records of who accessed R18+ content and with what credentials for a period of two years.

While the law targets commercial content providers, the rules also apply to "live content" services, aka, IRC services and chatrooms. It's also not clear what counts as commercial content: bloggers who turn a buck would seem to qualify. According to documents from the ACMA, the rules apply to hosting service providers, live content service providers, links service providers and commercial content service providers who provide a content service that has an Australian connection.

One wonders if the rules aren't a complete waste of time, however. Australia cannot enforce the rules in other countries, which in the long run seems to only give Australians an incentive to hosting their businesses somewhere else.


6th January

Update: Unfiltered Doubts...

Criticism for Australia's internet filtering plans

The Australian Government plans to protect unwary children by blocking violence and pornography on the internet.

Yet this simple sounding initiative - barely discussed during the election - is riddled with technical, financial, moral and social complexities.

The Government's plan, overseen by Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy, would require internet service providers (ISPs) to block undesirable sites on computers accessed by Australians.

A seething Dr Roger Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, bluntly described the proposal as "stupid and inappropriate".

He said not only was it unworkable, but it was a sinister blow to an individual's rights to use the internet without censorship: Not only will it not work, it is quite dangerous to let the Government censor the net and take control out of the hands of parents . It is an inappropriate thing for them to be doing. Mr Conroy is like a schoolmaster playing god with the Australian population, all because of the dominance of a moral minority.

One problem for the Government is that blocking child porn may unintentionally block acceptable sites. Another problem, according to civil libertarians, is that policing the net should be left to parents - not a big brother-style bureaucracy.

And, if it is disingenuous to compare Labor's policy to China's malevolent control over web access to its citizens, it is equally disingenuous of Rudd's Government to claim the issue simply relates to child pornography. There are genuine concerns that the Government - backed by morals groups like Family First - will in time extend the powers outside of their intended target area.

Also of concern is that, under the Government's plan, users would be permitted to "opt out" of the scheme - and might therefore find themselves listed as possible deviants.

On a practical level, ISPs fear the mass blocking of sites could slow internet speeds and cost millions of dollars to implement. The ability for download speeds to be maintained would depend on the exact number of sites blocked - it is suspected around 2000 sites could cause problems. ISPs fear a system based on key indicator words could rapidly clog the system.

A user typing in the address would be sent to an error page or possibly - as in Scandinavia - redirected to a police page.

Crucially, the Government has not explained how such a system would be paid for or who would monitor it or how such a system would work.

So far the industry, although eager not to be seen to be dragging their feet on child pornography, has been noticeably reticent in their response to Labor's plans.

Internet Industry Association spokesman Peter Coroneos was keen to emphasise the work already being done by service providers in supplying free filters.

They are likely to clarify their position after ACMA runs simulated tests on a filtered network later this year. We obviously want to know if this will have an impact on network performance, Coroneos said At the moment we don't know what the extent of it will be, what it will cost, and whether it will set a precedent for other changes. We just don't know if it is feasible.


14th January

Offsite: Unfiltered Derision...

Widespread derision for Australia's internet filtering idea

Internet Service Providers (ISPs), IT managers and the Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) have slammed the federal government's national content filtering scheme and dubbed it a technically impossible token gesture.

The opt-out plan, announced this month by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, requires all ISPs to filter "objectionable material" from Internet traffic according to a blacklist defined by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Industry professionals joined the EFA and rebutted the scheme, claiming it is technically impossible and economically infeasible to implement, police and maintain ISP-level content filtering.

Read full article

Meanwhile Child Wise CEO Bernadette McMenamin has clarified her position on the Federal government's plan to implement mandatory Internet filtering at the ISP level, stating that all she wants blocked are child pornography Web sites, and nothing else.

Child Wise is an Australian charity dedicated to the protection of children.

McMenamin said she categorically disagrees with any type of filtering that does not involve child porn or child abuse related sites: I do not support filtering pornography in general or other contentious sites. Only child pornography, as I don't believe filtering should be used to censor .

The plans to introduce ISP level filtering to protect Australian children by the Minister for Broadband, Senator Stephen Conroy, and Family First Senator Steve Fielding, have resulted in mass outpourings of protest, such as the NetAlarmed web site, for its vague definitions of what should be filtered.

McMenamin does not want to be lumped in the same boat as Conroy and Fielding, and believes their agenda of protecting Australian children online has been confused with her goal of removing child pornography from the Internet.

This is where people are confusing issues on the subject of ISP filtering as opposed to keeping children safe online. ISP filtering is about removing/blocking child porn...No one should have access to this, it simply shouldn't be there.

I think the Federal government must refine their position and focus only on child pornography because I think they are confusing the issue at the moment by being silent around what exactly they are going to be filtering, and this is creating fear and exaggeration.

Read the full article


21st January

Update: Unfiltered Repression...

Australia pushes ahead with age verification

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will introduce changes to the regulation of restricted content available online and via mobile next week, despite an overwhelming negative response from the media and industry.

ACMA is intending to impose a set of guidelines to restrict access to MA15+ and R18+ content accessed through the Internet and mobile premium services under the Restricted Access Systems Declaration, putting the onus on content providers to ensure that users accessing MA15+ and R18+ content can prove they are at least 15 or 18 years of age respectively.

The regulations will now require users to view front-end warning screens and check age verification declarations on Australian sites hosting restricted content.

ACMA had requested comment from industry and individuals on the proposed changes in November, and received 26 submissions in reply from a wide range of respondents including the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSW CCL) and the Internet Industry Association (IIA)

There was certainly a fair degree of criticism from industry given the political context in which the changes arose, said Peter Coroneos, IIA CEO.

One of the strongest reactions garnered against the legislation came from Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), one of Australia's largest magazine publishers and home to men's lifestyle publications such as Zoo, FHM and Ralph, which all host MA15+ content on their associated Web sites.

We are very concerned by the proposed extension of R18+ access restrictions to MA15+ content, said Ben Heuston, ACP's digital director, in a statement submitted to ACMA late last year.

The proposed regulations appear impractical and discriminatory...there seems no practical way of restricting this type of content to 15-17 year olds, we are not aware of an effective system working anywhere else in the world, he said.

The IIA CEO said that early drafts of the Restricted Access Systems Declaration were unworkable for content providers and imposed unnecessary restraints on their users.

Despite the considerable negative response to ACMA's requests for comment on the legislation, Coroneos said that the communications regulator was very cooperative in its dealings with industry.

According to Coroneos, ACMA would not have approved the legislation if discussions with industry had broken down.


18th July

Update: Internet Censorship...

Australia internet industry publishes its Content Censorship Code

The Australian-based Internet Industry Association (IIA) has announced its new code of best practice censorship for online and mobile service content providers.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which regulates the industry, reviewed and approved this code of industry practice to oversee, monitor and enforce.

It took effect on July 16, following a 30-day public comment period.

According to IIA's chief executive, Mr. Coroneos: It provides a way for locally-based commercial content service providers and live content service providers to ensure that potentially restricted commercial stored content services or live content provided by commercial content services now comply with Australian classification schemes .

The code provides the Internet and mobile industries with guidance on a variety of subjects, including handling complaints; taking-down notified content; means of promoting online safety for Australian families; implementing restricted access systems for some content services; and regulating certain chat services.

According to the ACMA, any content that is likely to be rated MA15+ (for mature audiences over the age of 15) must be assessed and classified by "trained content assessors."

As part of the code, ISPs will use access controls to provide content that is rated MA15+ or R18+ (restricted to those over 18).

Standard hardcore material rated X18+ is banned.


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