Internet was first introduced in Australia in 1986 when a few universities could intermittently connect to the .au domain to the Australian Computing Science Network. These universities used this connection to share email links which could be used by newsgroup facilities that were just emerging at the time.
Since then the internet has grown at a stupendous rate to cover almost the entire Australian population today. 79% Australians had access to the internet back in 2010-11, and the numbers have only increased since then. All internet technologies like ADSL, FTTP, etc. are available to the Australian populace. But there have been some overly surprising and disappointing developments in Australia when it comes to people’s freedom on the internet.
Internet Censorship in Australia
Australia is ranked as a country that is fairly liberal when it comes to providing the citizens free and unrestricted access to the internet. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) overlooks the process of blocking websites that are deemed unfit for the viewing of public.
A blacklist of international websites is also maintained by ACMA, which is fed into the filtering software to rid the Australian internet off them. But these filters are only to block websites relating to child pornography and other illegal activities like sexual violence.
Most cases of internet filtering that can be found in Australia relate to stopping someone from spreading racial hatred or other such issues.
- In 2010, Aboriginal, an Encyclopaedia Dramatica article was stripped off the search engines in Australia. People are trying to access said article were shown a message that one of the results has been removed following a legal request as per Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. The ACMA acted on viewers reporting that this content was highly racist.
- In 2013 an IP address that was used by some 1,200 websites was blocked by the Australian Securities and Investment Commissions because they wanted to target a fraud website. The ASIC later said that the other websites that were blocked as a result of this were unintentional on their behalf, and the block was consequently lifted.
Laws pertaining to censorship and surveillance
While the history of authorities like ACMA filtering websites on the internet has shown that no ill effect has usually been seen by the common masses, and the filtering is done simply to stop illegal activities to take place on the internet, recent legislatures are not on the same lines. Australian government’s stand on internet surveillance and filtering of content has changed a lot over the past few years. This is reflected in the many policies that have been introduced over recent years.
- Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015
This bill was passed by both the houses of the Australian parliament, enabling companies to approach federal courts to get overseas websites blocked if they believe that the primary purpose of those websites is to facilitate copyright infringement. Although the government said that it is not internet filtering, but simply a means to improve the copyright laws of the country, many claim otherwise.
For one, the terms ‘primary purpose’ and ‘facilitate’ are loosely defined in this context, meaning that some websites that do not indulge in whatever the accusers are accusing them off could be caught in the mix unfairly. An associate professor at Australian National University College of Law Dr Matthey Rimmer said that since most of the controversial material leaked by WikiLeaks is usually under Copyright, this bill could be a move made by the government to censor embarrassing information.
- Data Retention Bill 2015
This is arguably one of the most blatant violations of people’s privacy in any country. Australian government passed this bill which came into effect in October 2015. Under this law, a huge amount of metadata would need to be retained by Telecommunication companies up to 2 years.
Metadata includes data pertaining to details of phone calls between citizens, text messages, location, device information, data exchanged, as well as IP addresses. Although the Australian government has clarified that metadata does not include recording the phone conversations or the content of the text messages but only records as to when the calls were made and between whom.
These are considered as information necessary for the government to have access to for the safekeeping of the people and the country. It is a model used in other countries as well, as cited by the Australia government.
However, there has been a huge criticism of this bill. What this bill essentially does is that it gives the government the perfect method to enforce mass surveillance on the citizens and keep track of what each and every individual is doing on the internet or through other telecommunication devices. Everything that Australian citizens would do on the internet would be tracked and stored for up to 2 years.
This completely takes away the people’s right to privacy, for nothing will remain confidential in Australia anymore. Privacy as people knew it ceased to exist in Australia in October 2015 when the Data Retention Bill came into effect.
While the government points to the fact that these would help put a stop on terrorism and cyber crimes, others have claimed that there is nothing to stop the authorities in accessing this metadata for much more minor crimes. What’s more, ISPs would need to pay hefty penalties if they refuse to play ball with the government on this.
Protecting your Online Privacy in Australia
While the situation is not officially clear in most countries regarding how much surveillance is done by the government to the citizens, the scenario in Australia couldn’t be clearer. There is no more secrecy. The government owns secrecy in Australia now. So if you are an Australian citizen and like to keep your personal stuff confidential, your emails and messages private, you need to take some steps. Using a VPN is the first of those.
VPNs encrypt your connection, and the traffic exchanged between the internet and your system. What they do is:
- They prevent anyone from reading the content of what you share or do on the internet as the data exchanged is encrypted
- They prevent ISPs and other trackers from seeing what you are doing on the internet as all they can see is that you are connected to a VPN
- They help you become anonymous on the internet as they mask your true IP address with the server you are connected This means that you can pretend to be using the internet from anywhere in the world while sitting in Australia provided you are connected to a server in that location.
As highlighted in this article, the people of Australia are in dire need for methods to reclaim their private lives from the clutches of the government. While VPNs can help with this, one must take the utmost care when choosing a VPN, for many VPNs that are under jurisdictions that require them to record and share activity logs are useless as records of user activity can be accessed by legal authorities as and when they desire.