Australian Government heading down slippery slope with online censorship

online-bits.jpg Last week a Bill was introduced to the Senate that aims to give Federal Police sweeping powers to ban access to Internet content. The Communications Legislation Ammendment (Crime or Terrorism Related Content) Bill 2007 [PDF doc] might sound like it has good intentions by invoking the word 'terrorism' in the name, but it is incredibly sweeping in its powers.

According to Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Bill would give Feds the power to ban access to content they "have reason to believe" encourages, incites, or induces the commission of a Commonwealth offence; was published in part to facilitate the commission of such an offence; or is likely to have the effect of facilitating the commission of such an offence.

This isn't just about terrorists. Commonwealth offences include copyright infringement, 'illegal' protest marches, or advocacy for actions like euthanasia. We might not agree with all such things, but the idea that a law could be in place to let the police ban discussion through a 'reason to believe' it encourages offences? The slippery slope just got a bit more grease added to its stainless steel surface.

With no provisions in the Bill for appeal or review of decisions, the EFA is throwing a real tanty over this one. Odds are good that parliament will not sit again prior to the election, but this is there on the table ready to become a law if the status quo of parliament remains after the election. The full EFA release is after the jump. [EFA Slams Police Censorship Bill]

EFA Slams Police Censorship Bill

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) today slammed a Bill introduced into the Senate which would give members of the Australian Federal Police powers to ban access to Internet content.

The Communications Legislation Amendment (Crime or Terrorism Related Internet Content) Bill 2007 would, if enacted, give senior members of the Australian Federal Police powers to ban access to Internet content which they "have reason to believe":

* encourages, incites, or induces the commission of a Commonwealth offence; or * was published in part to facilitate the commission of such an offence; or * that it is likely to have the effect of facilitating the commission of such an offence.

"This Bill is another step in Australia's descent into a police state," said EFA Chairperson Dale Clapperton. "It will give sweeping and unchecked powers to the Federal Police to ban access to Internet material by decree. There is no place for these powers in a liberal democracy such as Australia."

The powers granted by the Bill, which can be delegated to senior members of the Federal Police, have an unacceptably low threshold test, requiring merely that the person "have reason to believe" that the material falls into one of the classes set out above.

"This 'reason to believe' could be based on material that would be inadmissible in a court of law, obtained unlawfully, or on rumour, innuendo, or gossip," Clapperton continued. "There are no provisions in the Bill for an appeal or review of a decision by the police to ban access to material. The operations of police agencies which affect the rights of individuals should always be subject to judicial oversight. The mistakes made by the Federal Police during the Haneef debacle demonstrate that the police are not infallible and that the courts play a vital role in protecting the rights of individuals."

"There are already mechanisms available for the police and the government to deal with Internet content that is illegal," Clapperton said. "The Federal Police do not require and should not have the power to ban access to Internet material merely because of what they 'believe' about it."

"This legislation has nothing to do with terrorism. Its powers apply to all offences under a law of the Commonwealth - even copyright infringement. The reference to 'terrorism related Internet content' is a transparent attempt to deter criticism of the substance of the Bill."

EFA strongly believes that any powers which would restrict the freedom of speech of individuals should only be available in extraordinary circumstances and where there are procedures for ensuring accountability and judicial oversight in place.

"These laws will be open to massive abuses by the police. They could, for example, be used to prevent access to websites organising protest marches or rallies against the government, or advocating for the legalisation of euthanasia. To the extent that this legislation allows the police to ban access to material discussing political matters, it is probably unconstitutional."

EFA urges the Australian Government to abandon this poorly reasoned Bill.

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