Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - Australia

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - Australia, 2004, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
  • Population: 19,544,000
  • Internet users: 9,472,000 (2002)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 14 euros
  • DAI*: 0.74
  • Situation**: good

Australian civil society is exceptionally alert to online issues and the country is very well connected to the Internet. However, an alarming court decision has been made about online defamation which has been followed elsewhere.

The Broadcasting Services Act, which came into force on 1 January 2000, lists material to be banned from websites, including child-porn, bestiality, excessive violence and information about crime and drug use. The arbiter of this is the regulatory Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), which can ask the ISPs of sites concerned to take reasonable steps to block access to them.

Responsibility of website hosts

Communications, information technology and arts minister Richard Alston and justice minister Chris Ellison said in August 2003 that sending offensive material over the Internet should be punishable by a prison sentence. They said ISPs would not be held responsible for illegal content unless they were aware of it, meaning that Australia agreed with the European Union position (see chapter on European Institutions). Making them otherwise responsible for material could threaten freedom of expression and lead to undue censorship for fear of prosecution.

The senate amended the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the main law on message privacy, on 9 September 2003, with the aim of protecting children from online pornography. The amendment, criticised by Green and Democratic senators, included a disturbing aspect. To comply with the FOIA, the communications ministry is required to provide a list of censored websites every six months. The last one was issued in July 2001 and the cyber-freedom group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) asked several times in 2003 for an updated list. The government simply escaped this obligation of openness by amending the FOIA to strike out the requirement.

Privacy of online messages

The Sydney local government proposed the Workplace Surveillance Act , requiring employers to ask their workers' permission before intercepting their e-mail and monitoring their Internet activity. This followed several court rulings against firms that had sacked employees who stored personal e-mails and other private material on their computers. The measure would improve message privacy but has drawn protests from many employers who say they need to monitor the professional e-mail of their employees.

The Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill, sent to the federal parliament on 19 February 2004, notably banned the interception of e-mail and text-messages without a court order. The EFA said it was an overall improvement on earlier such measures.

The dangers of the Gutnick ruling

The federal high court upheld on 10 December 2002 the conviction of the Dow Jones media group for libelling Australian businessman Joseph Gutnick in an article that appeared on the online version of one of its magazines, Barrons. The Victoria state supreme court had accepted the case on grounds the article could be seen on computers situated in the state, in other words that the place of publication was where it could be read and not the place where it had been put online by an editor.

The ruling poses a major risk to online media, who could be sued anywhere in the world. It was soon imitated. A Canadian court made a similar judgement in January 2004 (see chapter on Canada). More disturbingly, it encouraged people and groups wanting to silence critical publications to cite the ruling to threaten website editors and hosts with prosecution (see chapter on Malaysia).


* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.

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