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Australia’s porn-blocking plan unveiled; Cleaning Up the Internet to Woo Christian Voters

Australia- Australian Prime Minister John Howard has announced a plan by the country’s Coalition political parties to clean up Internet porn, in an effort to woo Christian voters.

Protecting Australian Families Online program, which will cost $160 million, is under the auspices of NetAlert, Australia’s Internet safety advisory body. The program will kick in August 20 and include a package of measures that the government says will help parents protect their children from online dangers.

Howard announced the slew of changes last week in a joint Webcast with opposition leader Kevin Rudd, broadcast to 770 churches and watched by an estimated 100,000 Christians.

The lion’s share of the cash–$71.8 million–will go into a filtering program offered to individual homes and public libraries. Parents will be able to choose either to install filtering software on their home PCs or to request a “clean” connection from their service provider, which will be responsible for blocking pornographic content at the ISP level.

The government will post a list of approved filtering software providers on its Web site and mandate that all sanctioned vendors update their products as the threat landscape changes.

While individual filters will be available beginning later this month, ISP-level blocking may take some time to implement. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is currently planning a trial of ISP-level filtering in Tasmania that will inform the government’s decision on a national launch.

The federal government has already examined the potential ISP-level filtering three times, starting in 1999.

Following the most recent trial, Coonan acknowledged problems with the concept saying: “Each report has found significant problems with content filter products operating at the ISP-level…The Australian trials have also found the effect on performance of the Internet by ISP filtering to be substantial and a lack of scalability of the filters to larger ISPs.”

NetAlert’s Protecting Australian Families Online program will also see publicity campaigns stepped up, including an $18.6 million awareness scheme to “inform parents and (caretakers) of children about online safety issues and provide information about where they can go to receive support and assistance”, and 10 new ACMA Internet safety officers who will visit schools to talk about online dangers.

More “Web police” will be added to the Online Child Sex Exploitation Team, which will receive a $36.8 million cash injection to pay 36 new hires in 2007-08, rising to a total of 90 in 2009-10. The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions will also receive a funding boost to cope with the expected increase in prosecutions resulting from the additional Web police.

Other changes include an extension of the ACMA Blacklist, which includes pornography denied classification by regulators, to cover malicious software and terror sites.

The plan comes in addition to a previously announced government initiatives to curb online pornography. Communications Minister Helen Coonan first unveiled the plan to launch content filters last year, although the program has been beset with delays since then.

Coonan welcomed last week’s announcement, saying in a statement: “Unfortunately, no single measure alone can protect children from online harm and, in fact, traditional parenting skills have never been more important.”

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