by Chris Griffith
Published 10 March 1996 in The Sunday Mail
This follows a landmark case involving a 22-year-old student charged with possessing and copying child pornography from the Internet. The charge carries a maximum of two years prison.
Details of the case cannot be discussed because it is before the courts in Queensland.
But the case is regarded as widely significant because the alleged evidence of the man's pornographic activity was a file located at his local internet service provider -- the site dialled and connected to by modem as his gateway to the information super highway.
There was no child pornography on the man's computer.
What concerns civil libertarians is that the case shows how easily law enforcement agencies can monitor acceptable forms of internet activity by accessing information held by internet service providers.
A new national civil liberties organisation called Electronic Frontiers Australia, or EFA, has formed to put the case for internet privacy and balance what it regards as public misunderstanding over the use of the internet.
The national chair of EFA, Perth lawyer Kimberley Heitman, yesterday said his organisation in no way condoned those who used the internet to download child pornography.
But he said there must be strict rules to protect the privacy of internet activity from unwarranted monitoring by law enforcement agencies.
"Under Queensland law a search warrant must be obtained before police can search the files of an internet provider," he said. "But in theory they could cart away all the equipment held by the service provider and go through every directory of every user.
"If the service provider cooperates [without a warrant] all the users could be exposed to scrutiny."
Mr Heitman called for a code of conduct to prevent sweetheart deals between police and internet service providers which gave authorities open slather access to internet records.
"It is the service provider's responsibility to fight for the privacy of his or her users."
Currently, the states are beginning to pass laws designed to contain the flow of unacceptable information on the internet. Victoria and Western Australia are currently proceeding with internet censorship legislation.
Last year Queensland passed the Classification of Computer Games and Images Act as part of another national push to regulate and classify computer games.
The Queensland Act was not originally designed as a censorship tool for the internet, but it was being used as such.
At federal level, the Australian government has begun three separate inquiries to look at the consequences of the free flow of information on the Internet.
In November last year, the Senate Select Committee on Community Standards delivered eight recommendations that might characterise new federal law.
It recommended making it an offence to use computers to transmit, obtain possession of, demonstrate, advertise or request the transmission of material equivalent to the RC, R, and X categories".
The EFA said it was also concerned the present Queensland law would trap innocent people who downloaded illegal material without realising it.
EFA board member Irene Graham said it would be difficult to know whether an internet user actually knew they were down loading a file containing illegal material or actually solicited information mailed to them.
"They may not even know they are in possession of illegal material.
"Many users leave files unopened on their computers until they have time to view the contents. Likewise, many users do not access the internet every single day to read their E-mail."
Ms Graham described the Queensland Act as "a regulatory regime of tyranny".
"The time for saying that net censorship will never eventuate because it won't work is past."