Australia halts web filter plan ahead of polls

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Australia put its disputed Internet filter plan on hold for up to a year Friday to allow for an independent review of what content would be banned, in a move to mute controversy ahead of elections.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said that introduction of the "Clean Feed" filter would be delayed for consultations over what material should come under the initiative, which is to be administered by service providers.

"Some sections of the community have expressed concern about whether the range of material included in the Refused Classification category, under the National Classification Scheme, correctly reflects current community standards," Conroy said in a statement.

"In order to address these concerns, the government will recommend a review... be conducted at the earliest opportunity. The review would examine the current scope of the existing RC classification, and whether it adequately reflects community standards."

Conroy said the mandatory filter would not be imposed until completion of the review, which could take up to a year, buying the government a reprieve as it prepares to call an election in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, he said Australia's three largest internet service providers had agreed to voluntarily block a government-compiled list of child abuse webpages, which he described as featuring "abhorrent" content.

"I welcome the socially responsible approach taken by some of Australia's largest ISPs," he said, adding that they jointly account for around 70 percent of Internet users in Australia.

Canberra's ambitious plan to block access to sites featuring material such as rape, drug use, bestiality and child sex abuse has drawn criticism from global giants including Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.

Angry user groups launched an online campaign accusing the government of censorship, while cyber-activists succeeded in jamming key government websites in a concerted campaign of protest hacking.

User advocates, the pornography industry and others have likened Australia's proposed system to official firewalls operating in repressive regimes such as China and Iran.

Google has led criticism of Conroy's plan, with warnings it could damage the nation's reputation as a liberal democracy and set a dangerous global precedent.

The minister countered by accusing the web giant of hypocrisy, saying it had committed the "single greatest breach in the history of privacy" by collecting private wireless data while taking pictures for its "Street View" map service.

Australia last month launched a police investigation into the data collection, which Conroy described as a "quite deliberate" act. He denied it was in response to Google's vocal opposition to the web filter.

Conroy Friday said the delay was not intended to appease global critics which also include the US State Department, saying "international governments don't determine Australia's classification scheme."

He stood by the filter plan, saying he didn't think "any Australian actually tries to describe blocking child pornography or bestiality or pro-rape websites as censorship."

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