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February 02, 2000 09:00am
Down Under Smut Goes Up Over
Source: Wired News
by: Stewart Taggart

(SYDNEY, Australia) -- When the law shows up, relocate. That's been the strategy followed by pornography Web site www.teenager.com.au.

It promptly relocated its content to U.S.-based Web servers last month after receiving orders from the Australian government to take down sexually explicit material from its Australian-based Web site.

The take-down order against www.teenager.com.au is one of four made by the Australian Broadcasting Authority since 1 January, when a new law went into effect to limit unrestricted access to obscene and indecent online content.

In the case of www.teenager.com.au, ­Web surfers are now merely bounced forward to servers in the United States, ­beyond the reach of Australian authority.

"Technically, they have complied with the take-down notice we issued," ABA special projects manager Stephen Nugent said.

To opponents of the law, the move underscores the futility of efforts to control online content in an era of mouse-click regulatory arbitrage.

"Instead of being driven underground, these sites are merely being driven overseas," said Robbie Swan, spokesman for the Eros Foundation, Australia's Canberra-based adult industry lobby group. "The law is terribly flawed."

Under Australia's new laws, the ABA evaluates public complaints submitted to it by mail, fax, or email regarding Internet content believed sexually explicit, overly violent, or otherwise offensive. If the ABA decides a complaint has merit, it refers the material to Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification, which rates the material based upon an existing ratings system for domestic movies and videos.

Internet content deemed X (Sexually Explicit) or RC (Refused Classification) can be ordered taken down by the ABA if it is housed in Australia. For overseas-hosted content rated X or RC, the ABA can distribute the URLs to domestic Internet filtering software companies to add to content blacklists for customers using their products.

During January, the ABA received about 30 complaints, including www.teenager.com.au. The ABA issued the Web site an interim take-down notice pending classification of the material on its site from the OFLC, followed by a final take-down notice a few days later. But by that time, the material had been shifted to the United States.

"The fact that it [www.teenager.com.au] is now overseas-hosted content means it now comes under a different set of procedures," Nugent said. "Referral of the material to makers of approved filters is an option open to us."

Since the new laws were passed by Australia's parliament 30 June, critics had repeatedly warned of just such an eventuality. Nugent acknowledged the Web site's strategy came as no surprise to the ABA.

"The scheme is set up as it's set up, and the ABA is applying the rules accordingly," Nugent said. "It may be that the scheme needs to be further modified down the track."

For his part, Sasha Grebe, spokesman for Australian Communications Minister Richard Alston, said the law was working.

"The fact that these take-down notices are being complied with is a sign the law is working," he said. "If, at the end of the day, all we do is make it hard for these sites to be hosted in Australia, we've achieved something."

"We introduced this legislation to bring the Internet in line with existing media," Grebe said. "The OFLC merely makes rulings on Internet sites as they currently do with movies.

"We're simply applying the same standards."

In January, for instance, the OFLC banned distribution in Australia of the French film Romance on the grounds it contained explicit sex scenes.

Of the other three Web sites for which take-down orders were issued, none are believed to have reposted their material elsewhere, but it's hard to be certain, Nugent said. That's because the ABA only acts in response to complaints, and so it must await a new complaint to be filed about the content's new location before it can follow up, Nugent said.

"The ABA won't be proactively searching the Net," he said.

Wired News made several efforts to contact the operators of www.teenager.com.au ­through material posted on their site and through public phone directories. Emails weren't answered, and calls to listed phone and fax numbers yielded tape recordings saying the calls "could not be connected."

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