Description of on-line services
2.1 The Committee adopted the use of the term "computer on-line
services" to differentiate from on-line services which are available
using telephonic equipment alone, such as 0055 premium rate information
and entertainment services (the provision of which were intensively examined
by the Committee from a community standards perspective in 1991 and 1992).
2.2 The Committee views computer on-line services as any service accessible
via a personal computer, a modem and a telephone line. These services
may include business and communications services, databases, bulletin
board systems and dedicated networks established by business, government
or industry groups. It has been argued that the Internet is not an on-line
service "in the strict meaning of the terminology" (Evidence,
p. s425) but is included in the Committee's examination because of its
pervasiveness. More detail of a definition for on-line services is given
in Chapter 3.
Nature of on-line services
2.3 The Committee noted the use of three major approaches to describing
on-line services in submissions.
2.4 One common approach was to describe the various elements of on-line
services, even though few are discrete and many of which overlap. A listing
would include the following:
- Internet: A large, loosely-structured 'multicast' network which
connects commercial, educational and government networks worldwide.
Would generally be accessed through a Service Provider, but need not
- Bulletin board systems: An electronic equivalent to the traditional
notice board. Can be both standalone and networked (such as Fidonet).
Material placed on BBS is available to be accessed by the whole on-line
community, subject to any operator restrictions on access; for example,
- Chat rooms: A "real time" discussion between two or more
individuals using a keyboard. Also called electronic discussion forums,
Internet Relay Chat, Multiple-User Dungeons (MUDs) and Object-oriented
- Electronic mail: Private mail "posted" between two or
- File Libraries: Ranging from universities to small libraries. Network
applications, such as the World Wide Web: The area of massive recent
growth due to its capacity for high quality publication, incorporating
both text and graphics and, to a lesser extent, sound and video. Consists
of millions of pages of information (called "home pages")
stored in hundreds of thousands of linked computers around the globe,
accessible both commercially and free.
- News Groups, such as Usenet: Mostly public discussion forums, often
special interest areas, accessible by anyone and able to be added
to by anyone. Some newsgroups have closed access. Some newsgroups
are moderated, perhaps by a subject specialist, but most are not.
2.5 A second classification is whether such services are contained in
closed or open networks. Closed networks are those supplied by a service
provider to a closed group of customers, such as a BBS operator who requires
payment before access. Both the service provider and the customer should
be readily identifiable in this circumstance.
2.6 An open network is defined by the absence of central control over
the material available. The Internet is a global, open network which can
be accessed by any person at any point (without proof of identity or registration),
any person can both receive information and publish it, and there is no
organisational barrier to access.
2.7 Finally, on line services could be distinguished on the basis of
whether they are moderated or unmoderated; which refers to whether there
is any monitoring of content undertaken by the service provider. Whether
services are moderated or not may be significant to the level of liability
for content which should attach to service providers.
Extent and sources of obscene, offensive or otherwise undesirable material
2.8 The Joint Task Force on the Regulation of Computer Bulletin Board
Systems had sought to measure the potential access of children and unintending
adults to offensive material placed on BBS by reference to Australian
Bureau of Statistics data on computer ownership. As at February 1994 less
than 4% of homes contained both a computer and a modem, with under 3%
of homes containing a computer, a modem and a child.
2.9 The Task Force report recognised, however, that:
... although the problem is statistically small at present, the issues
raised by it will continue to grow in significance as the technology
develops. If an attempt is not made to come to grips with it at this
point, the difficulty of doing so at a later date can only be expected
to increase (Report, p. 9).
2.10 The Communications Law Centre made a similar point:
The children who have got computers that they can use unsupervised
with modems that can connect to the Internet is actually a very small
group of people. It is not to say it is not a significant policy issue
but it is quite a small one at the moment (Evidence, 12.10.95, p.81).
2.11 The Committee received a range of estimates of the extent of material
of concern which could be accessible by computer. In selecting for its
terms of reference the phrase 'obscene, offensive or otherwise undesirable'
the Committee had intentionally avoided such terminology as "equivalent
to refused classification" or "restricted" because of their
specific meanings in publications, film and computer game classifications.
It was considered important to allow the community to state its concerns
about what is available on-line which might be narrowed by use of too
2.12 The National Library of Australia submitted the following statement:
Many of the public comments about the Internet have given the impression
that there is a wealth of objectionable material there, easily accessible
to anyone. This is not so. Certainly there is some material of a sexual,
violent or racially offensive nature, but this is a very small proportion
of the total information content of the Internet (well below .01% in
the Library's opinion) (Evidence, p. s10).
The Library emphasised that, in general, people would not discover this
material accidentally, but would have to be searching for it and, in many
cases, they would need special software to display offensive images on
2.13 On Australia referred to material which is reasonably necessary
to protect the general public from and children in particular as 'a miniscule
percentage of the content available on line' (Evidence, p. s339).
2.14 Schoolsnet argued that:
Any content regulation of the Internet must be commensurate with the
threat. In the main the concerns are about protecting children, who
are a small percentage of the Internet population from offensive material
which is a small percentage of Internet content (Evidence, p. s380).
2.15 The Tasmanian Parents Council stated:
It is evident to the Tasmanian Parents Council that the problem of
access to objectionable material exists and is small (Evidence, p. s93).
2.16 This statement was made despite recognition in the Tasmanian Parents
Council submission of the finding of the Carnegie Mellon University study
released in late 1994 that '[p]ornography was widely available through
various computer networks, such as Usenet, the World Wide Web and commercially-operated
2.17 The submission from the Centre for Research in Textual and Cultural
Studies, University of Wollongong (CRITACS), noted that there is a need
to distinguish between 'behaviour and discussion'. It inferred that researchers
who have used key terms to seek to assume the nature of the content of
newsgroups may mistake undesirable content with valid debate. Thus the
newsgroup alt.sex.pedophilia is the site of 'the most vehement opposition
to paedophilia as a practice' (Evidence, p. s396).
2.18 The research by Professor Harold Thimbleby of Middlesex University
has been queried in this regard (Evidence, p. s160-1). At a British conference
in September 1995 Professor Thimbleby reported that he had obtained a
list of "search engines" or "web crawlers", which
are used to find sites of interest. By arranging them in order of frequency,
he found the top eight to relate to sexual material. He was quoted in
The Times as saying:
There is a very large amount of paedophilia and bestiality on the Internet.
The pictures are of very high quality, but in some respects the textual
descriptions of what the pictures show are even worse (published in
The Australian, 14 September 1995, p. 6).
2.19 Dr Vangell Rafael, Director of Checkmark Technologies, who essentially
argued that it was technically impossible to regulate the Internet, informed
the Committee that 'I do not think anybody will question that there is
a considerable amount [of obscene material]' (Evidence, 12.10.95, p. 105).
He recounted the experience of his seven-year-old daughter who had come
across a web site originating in Copenhagen with live sex acts being shown.
Mrs I J Graham wrote:
There is no doubt whatsoever that objectionable material exists on
the Internet and that anyone who is determined to find it can do so
.... However, it is neither as easily locatable, available nor as widespread
as those who do not use the Internet appear to believe (Evidence, p.
2.21 As observed by the Religious Alliance Against Pornography, the numbers
of images is immaterial to the fact that:
there is substantial traffic in these images and children can access
them with just a few computer keystrokes (p. 545).
2.22 A much more problematic group of material for consideration relates
to textual or graphic material which is available in other media but which
may be seen as inappropriate on-line because of its ease of accessibility.
2.23 The Executive Council of Australian Jewry raised its concerns about
the use of on-line technology for the transmission of hate material directed
at social and religious minorities or attacking people on the basis of
their sexuality or gender. Mr Jeremy Jones, the Council's Executive Vice-President
told the Committee:
In recent times in Australia there have been a dozen or more reports
... of people who have received unsolicited Holocaust denying material
across their e-mail. Also, there is a great deal of concern in the international
Jewish community about the way in which some countries laws designed
to give recourse to victims of racial vilification and harassment are,
in a sense, being challenged directly by organisations and individuals
who see a new battleground, that battleground being the international
community of cyberspace (Evidence, 12.10.95, p. 88).
2.24 Electronic Frontiers Australia's "Electronic Rights and Responsibilities"
document argues that it is the right of every adult Internet participant
to transmit any information to any person, limited only by intellectual
property rights. This right is balanced by a responsibility to neither
harass nor threaten others and to tolerate the expressions of others,
even when these expressions directly offend your own opinions or beliefs
(Evidence, p. s143-4).
2.25 Editor of the EFA document, Mr Peter Merel, told the Committee that
'people will abuse these services, but people abuse other services...
we try to design social mechanisms to prevent the worst sorts of abuses,
but, by the same token, we have to accept that people do illegal things
using legal apparatus' (Evidence, 12.10.95, p. 129). His submission referred
to such mechanisms, already enforced by the Internet community, of e-mail
discussion with the offender, advising the system administrator, or "flaming"
which is by denigrating the behaviour in the same forum in which it occurs.
The offenders' access to the system can also be disrupted by various on-line
means, such as overloading their systems with rubbish transmissions (pp.
2.26 Another type of material which is arguably inappropriate on-line,
despite its existence in other forums, would include such items as the
"bomb recipe" as reported in the media after the Oklahoma bombing
incident. Professor Frank Tuerkheimer of the University of Wisconsin School
of Law addressed this issue in a statement to the US. Senate Judiciary
Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Intelligence and Government Information
on 11 May 1995. In a long statement reproduced in Mrs. Graham's submission,
Professor Tuerkheimer argued:
Information is neutral in terms of what is to be done with it. The
same information on explosives could be for use by a demolition contractor
or a terrorist.
The Internet is one of several methods of communication available to
convey information. Telephone, fax, post, courier service, short-wave
radio, travel and personal contact are alternate means of communicating.
The information is what matters, not the form of communication.
File information transmitted by the Internet already exists prior to
its electronic transmission. Thus, details on explosives manufacture
exists in the Encyclopedia Britannica or in any of several libraries
(see p. s162).
2.27 Mr Rudi Vavra acknowledged but was unconcerned that children may
have built bombs after getting the "recipe" off the Internet.
He saw it as just another medium for access to legal material already
published. His concern, however, was that in trying to censor such material,
the line may be inappropriately drawn (Evidence, p. s55).
2.28 Similarly, the Tasmanian Parents Council noted that the publication
of The Satanic Verses was 'considered an appropriate expression
of free speech in the western world, but an objectionable expression of
blasphemy in the Islamic world" (Evidence, p. s91)
2.29 Because of the global nature of many on-line services, it is not
a simple task to determine with any certainty the geographical sources
of obscene or offensive material. There was no doubt in any witnesses'
submissions, however, that the vast majority of inappropriate material
accessible in Australia was overseas sourced. It is somewhat easier to
determine which on-line services are the most prominent sources of such
2.30 The ACS/EFA Joint Task Force stated:
It is important to realise that in the case of the Internet the new
services provide access, not content. The content comes from all over
the world. Most of the content available via the Internet is outside
the control of anyone in Australia (Evidence, p. s19).
2.31 General Products Pty Ltd referred to '99% of these seedy dives exist
outside of the Australian jurisdiction, so there is nothing that can be
done to close them down' (Evidence, p. s137).
2.32 Similarly, Mrs I J Graham wrote:
As the majority of unsuitable material originates overseas and is located
on overseas systems, Australian Government attempts to regulate content
on the Internet cannot be effective in preventing access by minors to
such material without removing Australia's ability to interact with
the rest of the world both privately and commercially (Evidence, p.
2.33 Telstra noted that, in a global market, one of the difficulties
for regulatory and enforcement agencies is identifying the sources of
obscene material. It stated that it understood 'that such material has
generally been sourced from adult or special interest bulletin boards'
(Evidence, p. s119).
2.34 Mr Robin Whittle's submission contained what he called The Great
Internet Porn Hunt. He wrote:
In summary, I found all sorts of things in a number of easily identified
Usenet newsgroups. Outside the newsgroups I found almost nothing which
I think should cause serious offence... Some commercial World Wide Web
sites offered more explicit material for paid subscribers (Evidence,
2.35 Even the Usenet newsgroups as a major source of objectionable material
has been queried by Mr Phil Herring, a contributor to the CRITACS submission.
Mr Herring submitted that:
While pornography can be found in a few Usenet newsgroups (perhaps
a dozen, out of 5000) almost all of it is relatively innocuous, being
of a level that is available in unsealed magazines in most Australian
newsagents. material that would be refused classification in Australia
probably constitutes a few percent of the available material, and is
almost entirely concerned with bestiality (Evidence, p. s402).
2.36 The Committee notes calls from submittors such as CRITACS and the
PC Users Group (ACT) for further research to enable an assessment of the
extent of obscene, offensive or undesirable +material on line, given the
methodological and other deficiencies in published research or the reliance
on personal anecdote. While the size of the problem of children's access
to such material is interesting to the debate about whether there is a
need for the regulation of on-line services, the Committee notes that
material equivalent to the refused classification category is available
on-line which would not be available through any other medium (except
illegally). The existence of any such material is sufficient basis for
the Committee to favour the promulgation of some form of regulation.
2.37 The options for regulation are discussed in chapter 3.
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