Australian Censorship bill could impact on P2P

Originally published at O’Reilly

Australia’s been in the news before about Net censorship legislation, but the South Australian Parliament may have gone a little extreme even for this Net-conservative country.

A bill introduced in November would make it illegal for content providers to post material that is considered “objectionable viewing material” for children. What’s objectionable viewing material? Anything that the police — the police, mind you — would consider as falling within the R, NC, or X ratings categories of the film industry. Ostensibly this would cover material such as child pornography or content advocating breaking the law. However, the bill is general enough that it could also cover material on topics such as abortion, suicide, drug use, sexual behavior and other sensitive topics that could be termed “adult topics” and therefore R-rated.

Even more alarmingly, under this bill posting this material is illegal even if access to the material is restricted or password-protected. Compounding the problem, content providers would have no way of knowing whether their material would fall under one of the prohibited classifications before posting it; if the material is judged by the police to be within the parameters of this bill, you’d be charged. No warning and no second chance. And the fines aren’t cheap: as much as 10,000 (Australian) dollars per offense.

According to an alert issued by Electronic Frontiers Australia, this bill would actually make material that’s legal offline, illegal once posted online.

The impact of this bill on Web-based businesses is obvious — the level of censorship implied would give even the most conservative businesses pause when it comes to posting content on their Australian-based Web sites. What may not be so noticable, though, is the impact of this bill on peer-to-peer applications and services. You see, the wording of the bill doesn’t focus on Web-based content; it concerns content distributed via the Internet.

Consider the following scenario: You’re a subscriber to a file-sharing P2P service such as Napster. You make a request for material that could be considered “objectionable” because of the language used — for instance one of the more explicit songs from Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill,” or practically anything from Guns N’ Roses or Eminem. Once you’ve downloaded an “objectionable” song, it’s now on your machine for your personal use. However, in this process, you’ve also “posted” this content for access by other clients through the Internet: P2P is based on the fact that any node within the network can be both a client and server. According to this bill, you would be in violation of the law.

If you’re a subscriber to a decentralized service such as Freenet or Gnutella, the potential problems with this type of bill are even more extreme. With these types of P2P networks, if a file request is made from node A to node B, and then from node B to node C, that file is returned to node B as the intermediary first, and finally to node A. Now, not only is the peer located at C in violation of the law, so are A, who originally requested the file, and B, who did nothing more than subscribe to the conditions of the P2P service that states files may be stored on the client’s machine as a method of disseminating popular files throughout the network.

By its very nature, Freenet hides the identity of nodes supplying or requesting files, making it difficult to ascertain who was the originator of the material or the request. Because of this, it becomes difficult to ascertain who is legally responsible for “posting” the file if it is deemed to fall within the parameters of this censhorship bill. So, what could happen is that the intermediary node containing the file is the one charged with violating the law, rather than the originator, regardless of the technical and legal semantics that form the basis of anonymity within a Freenet network.

At the very least, applying this censorship law to the Freenet or Gnutella network would become a legal nightmare to the South Australian court system. All it would take to demonstrate the unfeasibility of the law is to introduce one highly popular but objectionable file to Freenet, potentially turning all or most South Australian Freenet users into criminals. This issue goes beyond considerations of copyright law.

According to the UK-based Register the South Australian’s politicians must have gone “barking mad” — in other words, the bill’s sponsors may want to reconsider the bill on its own merits.

Read the pertinent sections of the censorship bill at Electronic Frontiers and then join discussions at Slashdot and South Australia’s Talking Point

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