The President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Nadine Strossen, yesterday described Australia as a "global
village idiot" because it has tried to protect children from illegal material on the internet.
Her comment is an unfortunate example of the arrogant disdain shown by some visiting "experts" who do not feel
comfortable with ideas and approaches that differ from their own cultural experiences.
Ms Strossen, please note:
Australia is not the United States. Australians believe that promotion of individual "freedoms" must be balanced by the
wider social good.
Australians are proud of our sensible approach to issues such as gun control, health care and social welfare. We
believe it compares very favourably to the US approach.
We are similarly proud of our approach to content classification. In contrast to the US approach - under which free
speech considerations have led to the outlawing of attempts to protect children from pornography or extreme violence -
Australia has a nationally agreed system of classifying content that seeks to balance freedom of expression with
protection of community standards.
Australians believe that some material is so abhorrent that it should be illegal to publish. Other material, whether it
be high levels of violence or explicit sex acts, should not be freely available to children.
This system is the responsibility of the States and Territories. It is administered nationally by the Office of Film
and Literature Classification, with decisions about content made by the National Classification Board (NCB) which has
strong community input.
Australia's internet content legislation seeks to extend this system to the internet. The legislation recognises that
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a responsibility to remove illegal or highly offensive material once they are
made aware of its existence.
There is no automatic requirement on ISPs to install filters, proxy servers, or anything else. There is no automatic
requirement for ISPs to block all access to certain types of material. The system is complaints-based.
But Ms Strossen has chosen to ignore the facts, and clearly hasn't bothered to read the legislation.
Does she seriously believe that material which is illegal offline - such as bomb recipes, paedophile lists and
incitement to racial violence - should be permitted on the internet in the interests of "freedom of speech", a freedom
which is rightly constrained in other media?
She claims the legislation is "an open-ended licence for whoever's enforcing the law to inject their values into it".
Wrong. Decisions on content will be made by the NCB based on a an established classification system. Decisions will not
be based on personal whim.
She claims the legislation is unworkable because there is no 100% effective filtering tool. Does this mean that she
favors the repeal of any law that is difficult to enforce - whether it deals with illicit drugs, drink driving or
The Australian Broadcasting Authority has today published international research showing that a majority of those
surveyed in Australia, the US and Germany were concerned about the presence of pornographic material and racist messages
on the internet.
In Australia, 53 per cent of those surveyed said they would block pornographic content in all circumstances, while a
further 33 per cent said they block this content in certain circumstances. The equivalent figures for racist messages
are 60 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.
The survey found that Australians and Germans wanted their Governments to police the internet. However, only a quarter
of Americans did so.
This research demonstrates important cultural differences between Australians and Americans in our attitudes toward the
internet and the protection of children from an "anything goes" approach.
Ms Strossen would do well to take account of those cultural differences before making pronouncements on the Australian
By peddling sensationalist rhetoric in order to get a headline during a flying visit to Australia, she is doing the
whole cause of sensible promotion of civil liberties a great disservice.