Attn: Senator The Honourable Richard Alston
Subject: Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999
As a long-term employee of the Information Industry, I wish to express my profound concern at the Government's Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999.
This bill is unworkable. Its main effect will not be to restrict childrens' ability to access Internet content which might be of concern to parents; Instead, it will drive the Information Industry in Australia to the brink of bankruptcy. There are several ways in which the bill will make business on the Internet more difficult for Australians; I would like to take the opportunity to describe them below.
To begin with, the bill will have the effect of slowing down access speeds on the Internet in Australia, speeds which are already lagging behind those of our trading partners. As the Canadian Radio Television Commission (their equivalent to the ABA) concluded in their report on content regulation, Regulation of the Internet: A technical perspective published earlier this month at http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/it05082e.html, attempting to impose filtering of objectionable material on the Internet will involve a performance degradation of at least 20%.Furthermore, the report estimated that in order to do a halfway reasonable job, Internet content regulation would consume an annual budget of $100 million (Canadian dollars).
Secondly, the bill will drive domestic companies out of Australia, and dissuade foreign companies from ever coming here in the first place. Consider yourself in the position of an executive of a foreign IT company looking to set up a point of presence in the Asia-Pacific region: You have a choice of going to a country such as Malaysia, with excellent tax incentives and cheap, high-bandwidth, uncensored network links, or you can come to Australia, with slow, expensive and unpredictable network connectivity as a direct result of the fact that we will be one of the only countries in the world censoring the Internet.
We are already seeing the beginning of the exodus: I have had word from several Australian content-hosting companies announcing that they are directing their businesses overseas; I have also been in communication with a US company which is already directing its customers away from Australia as a matter of principle. We cannot assume that we are automatically a better investment target than other countries in the region, and this legislation has already done profound damage to our international reputation and our attractiveness as an IT home-base.
Another aspect of the regime which will dissuade foreign investment is the fact that the regulations exist at all: it is with some incredulity that I note that the Howard Government has been quite successful in deregulating countless industries, yet for some bizarre reason the Internet industry is a target for more regulation. Does the Government not realize that virtually every other country in the world has very low barriers to entry to their information industries, and that this bill will impose a regulatory obstacle which companies don't have to bear in any other country they'd choose to move to?
Malaysia has already experienced this: In March, the Malaysian Prime Minister announced that Malaysia would be ceasing its Internet censorship regime due to the catastrophic effect it was having on the growth of their Information Industry. Is the Government likely to be proud of an international reputation which cites us as a less attractive investment target than Malaysia due to our draconian laws against free speech?
For companies which remain in Australia, the economic prospects are worse: Due to the rapid movement of Australian content off-shore to escape the worst of the censorship regime, all hope that Australia might be able to enter into Settlement Charging arrangements with overseas Internet carriers will be lost forever. This will make Internet access, and hence e-commerce, exceedingly expensive.
ISPs will be forced to install bug-ridden, slow, expensive, difficult to maintain proxy servers (since all of the filtering proxies on the market today are bug-ridden, slow, expensive, and difficult to maintain). Products like Clairview Internet Sheriff will make it increasingly difficult to access anything at all of value on the 'net, since the way the product works is so open to abuse by someone who understands its methodology; As Electronic Frontiers Australia (http://www.efa.org.au/Publish/report_isheriff.html), the CSIRO (http://www.tdce.com.au/~terry/reports/blocking/), the Canadian Government (URL provided earlier) and numerous other organizations world-wide (http://www.censorware.net) have shown, filtering software is the Internet equivalent of snake-oil, and cannot possibly work as advertised regardless of how far technology advances. Indeed, the only organizations anywhere in the world who claim that filtering technology works are the very companies who sell it, and who therefore have an obvious vested interest in making their products mandatory. But how much money should the Australian Internet Industry (and, indirectly, Australian Internet users) spend on products which don't work?
The date chosen for the commencement of the Act is also a very poor choice: On a day when the entire Australian IT Industry will be fighting the Y2K bug, is it reasonable to additionally burden the Internet Industry with content regulation provisions? At the very least, I'd ask you to give consideration to an amendment in the House of Representatives to change the commencement date for the Act.
At the end of the day, the Australian people have said that this legislation is unnecessary: At every opportunity, Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of working out for themselves what they want to see, and the question of inappropriate content for children ranks very low on their priority list. In a recent survey carried out by www.consult, it was found that less than 7% of people who use the Internet at least once per day are concerned about inappropriate content for their children; perhaps more revealingly, the same report found that less than 15% of people who have never used the Internet before are concerned about inappropriate content for young people.
In summary, I ask you to give consideration to the following:
The bill cannot ever achieve its stated goals, because the very nature of the Internet means that the technology to evade censorship will always be ahead of the technology which imposes it;
The bill will raise the barriers to entry for the Internet Industry, effectively locking out small players (such as the innumerable bush ISPs with Satellite internet feeds, who are therefore the points-of-entry to the country who would be responsible for international blocking);
The bill will impose a regulatory regime which will make Australia a less attractive investment target than countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and virtually everywhere else in the world;
The bill will drive Australian content off-shore, meaning that Settlement Charging will be impossible, Australian jobs will be transferred overseas, and fees which would normally be paid to Australian companies for content hosting services will be paid to foreign companies instead;
fact that the Ministry for Information Technology has pressed ahead with
this bill over the objections of the Internet Industry signals that the
Ministry is unresponsive and insensitive to the Industry it is supposed
Thank you for your consideration of this worrying matter,