Australian free speech activists are expressing alarm over ‘creeping’ restrictions on their Internet access following the announcement that the new government content-filtering initiative known as the Clean Feed will be mandatory for all Internet users in the country.

The censorship plan allows users to opt out of one level of filtering, designed to protect children from objectionable Internet content, but forces all users to take a feed sanitized of content that the government deems ‘illegal’ under Australian law. Because the system will use keyword flagging and other techniques to detect ‘undesirable’ content, free speech advocates fear that many innocuous Web sites will also be be blocks. For example, sites calling for more aggressive prosecution of child pornographers may well be filtered out along with child porn sites, themselves.

“The news for Australian Internet users just keeps getting worse,” Electronic Frontier Australia spokesperson Colin Jacobs said. “We have legitimate concerns with the creeping scope of this unprecedented interference in our communications infrastructure. It’s starting to look like nothing less than a comprehensive program of real-time Internet censorship.”

Other critics and Internet service providers (ISPs) report that test filtering activity is slowing Internet service across Australia by up to 30 per cent compared to previous speeds.

Jacobs observes, “The definition of ‘inappropriate’ material has never been well defined. With Government-mandated software monitoring each Internet connection, we expect the scope [of censorship] to expand further as time goes by. How will the Government resist pressure by Family First or other special interest groups to permanently block material considered by some to be harmful?”

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