Draconian Internet Laws in Australia

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   The Internet is a revolutionary new medium that has provided people the world round a new medium of communication.  In "cyberspace" as the Internet has been nicknamed, everyone can have a voice and it is relatively easy for one person to reach a very large audience.  In addition to revolutionizing the way messages are broadcasted, cyberspace has also revolutionized peer-to-peer communication.  E-mail and instant messaging have become a very convenient method of communication for many people, oftentimes replacing the use of telephones and conventional postal mail.  However, the new methods of communication emerging on the Internet have also created a new communication medium for criminals.  Many criminals have found e-mail to be a safer method of communication as opposed to the telephone as it is impervious to wiretaps.  Instances of criminal use of cyberspace include espionage and drug trafficking.  Cyberspace has also led to the rise of a new form of crime - cybercrime.  Such crimes include child pornography and online stalking. 

 

The Internet is an international medium, therefore, it cannot be regulated by any one government, however, as crimes committed using the Internet have serious ramifications within real world borders, it is necessary that governments of affected nations take safeguards to protect its citizens.  The way in which governments prevent crime on the Internet, however, has become a point of contention for many people.  For example, privacy advocates in the United States oppose the Federal Bureau of Investigation's implementation of "Carnivore" a program that reads all e-mail passing through mail servers on which it is installed.  They argue that while Carnivore's purpose is to intercept correspondence between criminals, it invades the privacy of all Internet users as it allows the FBI to monitor all e-mail that passes through a system1.  However, of all the nations implementing precautions to prevent cybercrime and crime committed with the aid of the Internet, Australia's are perhaps the most draconian. 

 

On November 25, 1999, the Australian Parliament passed laws permitting the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) - the counterpart to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - to gain access to private computer systems and alter data for surveillance purposes without the knowledge of the owner of the computer.  It is important to note also that the ASIO is not subject to the Privacy Act of 1988.  This makes many Australian citizens uneasy that the government may now not only to monitor their actions on the Internet but also to compromise their computer systems.

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  Deputy leader Senator Natasha Stott Despoja fears that the new laws could be abused to allow the ASIO to construe evidence.  "The government has found quite a convenient excuse for significant new excursions into personal surveillance," she said.  Chris Connolly, director of the Financial Services Consumer Policy Centre, claims that the new laws gives the ASIO "new powers to hack into computers ... access our tax records, and access our banking records."  (Parliament Passes ASIO Bill)

 

In addition to the new laws giving the ASIO more power, many southern Australians are upset by a recent push for net censorship.  In 2001, it is likely that the South Australian Government will pass the Classification Amendment Bill, which would give the police the power to prosecute citizens who distribute content that it deems unsuitable for minors.  (Parliament Passes ASIO Bill)

 

The reason for the Classification Amendment Bill is that the federal government requires that the Office of Film and Literature Classification rate all media content from the Internet.  The idea is to prohibit sites that distribute child pornography or provide instructions or encourage criminal activity.  (ASIO Report Under Fire)

 

While this would make the Internet safer for minors and would popularize the Internet among citizens who fear some of the information readily available on the Internet, many feel that the bill would prevent one from exercising the freedom of speech.  Opponents to Internet censorship claim that the legislation would suppress public discussion of many legitimate subjects.  Founder and former board member of the Electronic Frontiers Australia, Michael Baker, stated, "I think it's political censorship gone rampant."  Under the new legislation, South Australians would be prohibited not only from publishing filmed footage of discussions of adult themes on the Internet, but would also be prohibited from discussing such issues on Internet newsgroups or mailing lists of which archives are kept.  Mr. Baker comments, "These are things you can discuss in the pub, but you won't be allowed to discuss them on the internet."  Despite the rigidity of the proposed bill, it would have no impact on the availability of illegal content to minors, as there are many sources of such content on overseas servers.  (ASIO Report Under Fire)

 

As previously discussed, there are reasons why governments see the need to regulate cyberspace.  However, cyberspace, aptly yclept by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer, is a space.  As such, it is also important that governments that choose to regulate its citizens' actions in cyberspace do so in accordance to the way they regulate real space.  The way in which Australia regulates its citizens' behavior in cyberspace is more resembling of the way space is regulated in the World State as depicted in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  This reveals a seemingly recurring theme involving the Australian government and technology:  they don't get it.  This is best illustrated by a proposal written in 1996 to "alter proprietary software so that it performs additional functions."  The intent was to facilitate law enforcement agencies' ability to compromise citizens' computer systems.  The morality of this aside, the idea is nearly impossible and doomed to be useless.  While in theory, it may look good to the bureaucrats who need only ask their underlings to implement their proposals, in reality, it would require nothing short of negotiating a contract with Microsoft and other operating system manufacturers to implement new undocumented features - as if Windows were lacking.  However, given Microsoft's disinclination to allow even trusted bundlers of their operating systems to modify the appearance of their desktop, such an implementation is highly unlikely.  As for such use to combat criminal activity, criminals will only resort to using open-sourced operating systems such as FreeBSD or Linux.

 

What the Australian government needs to realize is that cyberspace is an international medium that it cannot possibly control.  Instead of trying to control the small part of it that is within its legislation in order to prevent crime, the ASIO and other Australian law enforcement agencies should learn to use cyberspace to its advantage.  Cyberspace is a unique space that poses many weaknesses to criminals intending to use it.  The Australian government just needs to stop treating cyberspace as the enemy but instead as an ally.

 

 

Works Cited

Maher, William.  "ASIO Report Under Fire."  Australian Personal Computer:  Newswire.  14 May 1999:  n. pag.  Online.  Internet.  10 Jan. 2001.  Available http://newswire.com.au/apcweb/news.nsf/def5c94fb1fc5ea6ca25647b00461aa4/ace558bb8e62541e4a25677100258420!OpenDocument.

---.  "Parliament passes ASIO Bill."  Australian Personal Computer:  Newswire.  26 Nov. 1999:  n. pag.  Online.  Internet.  10 Jan. 2001.  Available http://newswire.com.au/apcweb/news.nsf/c1c1057939c26a87ca2564b90004cdec/7b86c55e8e8a81caca25683500228ebd!OpenDocument.

1 For more information regarding Carnivore and other methods of Internet surveillance in use or being proposed by other nations, see "Surveillance on the Internet" available online at http://www.geocities.com/l0s/srp.html.


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