Minister Wants Websites Banned 'For Inciting Violence' At WTO Meeting
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - An Australian state minister wants to shut down Internet websites he fears could incite violence during next month's "anti-globalization" protests against a World Trade Organization meeting in Sydney.
New South Wales police minister Michael Costa asked the federal government to act against the sites, using censorship measures designed to restrict offensive material such as child pornography.
The move has alarmed Internet civil liberties campaigners and upset protest organizers.
Costa, a former trade union activist, said he supported the right of peaceful, lawful protest.
"But it's clear to me comments and information on these sites are designed to incite violence against NSW Police, who will be providing security at the meeting," he said.
Costa did not identify the offending sites, but he said some were urging protestors to use sling-shots, baseball bats and marbles.
Some sites also reportedly explain how protestors can set fires using electrical timers and encourage protestors to throw smoke-bombs at police.
"These people have gone too far," he said. "They intend to harm police and police horses and put community safety at risk," he said.
According to one Australian protest site, three sites under scrutiny by the minister include Melbourne Indymedia - one of the global network of left-wing "independent media" outlets - a Melbourne site called "no2wto" and a Sydney site called "nowto."
Melbourne Indymedia said in response to Costa's complaint that he was simply trying to divert media attention away from "legitimate concerns of the WTO to a more sensationalist media coverage of conflict between protesters and police."
'Bans would be futile'
Electronics Frontiers Australia, an online civil liberties group, is concerned about the possibility that websites may be shut down or restricted.
Invited to comment, EFA chair Kimberley Heitman said the illegality of the speech Costa was complaining about may be in doubt.
"Offline, the law requires the threat of illegal behavior to be real and imminent," she said. "Inflammatory language is not itself illegal."
Heitman also pointed out that a site shut down in Australia could easily be mirrored or moved abroad.
"So attempts by Australian governments to censor the Net tend to be futile, no matter how strict are the rules or severe are the penalties."
Costa's complaint went to the office of federal Communications Minister Richard Alston, who referred it to an independent statutory body called the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA).
According to Heitman, the ABA can order the shutdown of web sites that give instruction in criminal areas. They may also be restricted by being placed behind an adults-only password system.
EFA and others are also concerned that under proposed changes to Freedom of Information legislation, Australians will not be able to find out which websites have been removed by the ABA.
"I'd be very disturbed if we have got to the stage in this country where not only we don't have a right to see controversial information, but we don't even have a right to know when it's been banned," Heitman told Australian television this week.
Since a WTO summit in Seattle in 1999, a series of international meetings around the world have been disrupted by demonstrators promoting a wide range of causes, including anti-capitalism, anarchy, environmental issues, Third World debt and opposition to U.S. foreign policy.
Internet websites have proved a valuable tool for those organizing the protests.
Police have generally blamed the violence on small groups of anarchists - sometimes described as the "black block" - among the otherwise mostly peaceful protestors.
The last time anti-globalization protests hit Australia was in September 2000, when a World Economic Forum gathering in Melbourne prompted three days of confrontations.
Police at the time accused protestors of throwing missiles, including marbles and nails, at officers and their horses. Around 25 policemen sustained cuts, bruises, broken bones and other injuries.
For their part, protest organizers accused the police of heavy-handed tactics, saying 30 people were hurt, and 20 needed hospital treatment.
Seven police officers accused of "inappropriate and excessive" use of batons are facing internal disciplinary action, it was reported last month.
Known as an informal "mini-ministerial," the meeting in Sydney on November 14-15 will bring together trade ministers from some 35 WTO countries, including the U.S.
Activist websites charge that the WTO promotes the agenda of multinational corporations above the interests of ordinary people, communities and the environment.
"The WTO isn't organizing in a vacuum," argues one Australian site. "The imperialist governments which dominate its economic agenda are the same ones who bombed civilians in Afghanistan and are planning retribution against Iraq ..."
Another site says a planned mass rally on Nov. 14 may oppose America's "globocop" role and Australia's role as its "Pacific deputy." Among groups organizing to protest in Sydney is the "Orange Block," whose members will "use our bodies in active, unarmed resistance."
The protestors will wear orange, to symbolize "the global state of emergency we are living under."
Sites also give advice about covering up to avoid contamination by "capsicum spray" (liquid cayenne pepper spray) or teargas. Protestors are advised to wear padded clothing, goggles, helmets, and to carry homemade shields and gasmasks - or bandanas soaked in vinegar.
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