Convergence review calls for online access overhaul

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Convergence review calls for online access overhaul

Silent on filter proposal.

The long-awaited inquiry into communications and media regulation has recommended the Federal Government overhaul legislation surrounding the restriction of adult content online.

The Convergence Review committee, led by former IBM Australia boss Glenn Boreham, said Schedule 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act - introduced in 2007 - should be dismantled and folded into a new classification system proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission in February.

The recommendation comes as part of a statutory review [pdf] of the five-year-old law, which allows the communications regulator to issue take-down notices or require internet service providers to prevent access to online content deemed to be rated at or above MA15+.

The statutory review was included as part of the terms of reference provided to the Convergence Review, whose final report this week primarily focused on media ownership and content regulation.

The statutory review comprised a buried, 14-page appendix at the back of the report.

While the existing system had been "broadly successful" at regulating and taking down Australian-hosted content, the committee found the legislation proved "unworkable in the context of online business models".

URL complaints rise

The Australian Communications and Media Authority had experienced a rise in complaints around online content from an average of 2000 a year since similar legislation was introduced in 1999, to nearly 12,000 individual complaints over the past financial year alone.

The schedule requires the ACMA to investigate each URL about which it has received a complaint individually for potential classification, take-down or restriction by internet service providers.

Sites and content hosted overseas escape the ACMA's take-down provisions and instead require internet service provider to determine the user's age - through credit card details or other personal information - for marked content with a rating of as low as MA15+.

The Convergence Review committee suggested the use of such a "restricted access system" had become unwieldy and was yet to be successfully implemented by service providers.

"On the rare occasions when the [restricted access system] provisions are tested, identifying how and whether the service meets the requirements of the [system] can be cumbersome and administratively onerous," the committee noted.

The committee's recommendations would also fall into line with the ALRC's proposal in February that service providers be required to take "reasonable steps" in restricting adult content sold or distributed in Australia.

The type of adult content and what is considered "reasonable steps" would be determined by a new regulator ultimately replacing the ACMA under the recommendations of both reports.

Should the Federal Government decide not to introduce the wider classification system proposed by the ALRC, the committee suggested sweeping interim changes to the legislation that included removing restrictions on online content deemed to be rated MA15+.

The ACMA would also be given greater powers to securely maintain and distribute to ISPs and internet filter makers a list of URLs deemed to be prohibited.

The ACMA has continued to maintain such a list, particularly containing material deemed to be 'refused classification', but several versions of the list have been leaked to the public over the past several years.

Welcome for privacy

Anti-censorship campaigner and former Electronic Frontiers Australia director Irene Graham welcomed the recommendation, which she said her former organisation had campaigned for over more than a decade.

"They are in my opinion, making comments and recommendations about revision of the existing law that have never been made since all of this internet regulation stuff came out in 1999," she told iTnews.

"While I might not agree with all of them, most of it is stuff that the EFA has been saying since 1999."

She said the existing legislation only coerced people to further dig for X-rated content or simply use order physical versions of the same content.

Similarly the use of the restricted access systems, though largely unsuccessful, continued to pose the risk of identity theft as it requires credit card or identifiable information from the user to determine their age.

Silence on filter stance

Despite the Convergence Review's fervent support for recommendations made by the ALRC, the committee's final report made no explicit mention of the Federal Government's mandatory internet filtering proposal outside of an executive summary of the classification review.

The convergence report had become communications minister Stephen Conroy's final delaying tactic in making a decision on the internet filtering scheme he first proposed in 2009.

The Federal Government is yet to fully respond to either reports and is not expected to do so for several months.

However, it remains unclear whether any future response to the convergence and classification reviews will yield a firm decision on the internet filtering front.

"I expect the [Convergence Review] recommendations will generate robust public debate," Senator Conroy said in a statement this week.

The Government would "respond to the report in due course", he said, but a spokesman for the minister did not clarify whether any response was likely to include action on the filter.

Several internet service providers have introduced internet filters based on a 'worst of' list of known child abuse sites collated and maintained by Interpol.

The scheme, which is voluntary for ISPs but not their users, is maintained locally by the Australian Federal Police, who have been criticised for lacking the statistics or detailed information to act on any local hosting of child abuse material.

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