New government, new year, new promises

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Why government Internet filtering raises more questions than it answers.

What better way to kick off the new year as Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy than to equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, as did freshly appointed Federal Broadband Minister, Stephen Conroy.

“Labor makes no apologies to those who argue that any regulation of the Internet is like going down the Chinese road. If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree,” he said at the start of this year.

Conroy was of course discussing the Federal Government’s plans to introduce legislation requiring all ISPs to provide a mandatory filter to block Internet access to a “blacklist” of websites created and maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). In other words, an Internet filter so robust and absolute in warding off “undesirable” web material that even China’s state-controlled and fiercely censored Internet keepers would be aghast at its effectiveness.

Seen as a laughable initiative by discerning and law-abiding adults, the Labor Government nonetheless views the initiative as a necessity to protect our hapless children who (if we are to believe the Government) are daily subjected to the unsolicited filth that waits ready to pounce from the Internet’s dark corners.

But what of people who don’t need the Government telling them what’s right or wrong, is there a way to decline the service of these filters we hear you ask? Sure, all you have to do is “opt-out”, which brings us back to the problem of Conroy’s comments.

Why not reverse the proposal and make it an “opt-in” system? That way, families concerned about exposing their children to questionable material on the web could simply adopt the filter that suits them and remove it as they see fit. Well actually, the Government (Howard’s this time) has already been down this path with the ill-received NetAlert. Since its $85 million launch in August last year, it’s only attracted about 110,000 users. That’s despite the Howard Government setting an adoption target of two million users within its first 12 months.

So if the “opt-in” option has already shown itself to be a failure, are we stuck with the “opt-out” ISP filtering plan? If so, is it economically or even technologically feasible to use a filter that keeps out the bad and retains the good, without degrading bandwidth speed? Well, according to ContentKeeper, a local ISP-filtering technology provider and one of the forerunners for the implementing the Government’s “clean feed”, it is. But of course, there must be concessions.

Of primary concern is the current ACMA blacklist and the Government’s plans to greatly expand it from its current 2000 sites so it can include everything the Rudd Government deems “questionable”. In the child porn stakes alone, various international groups have estimated there are likely to be millions of active sites. And with plans to also include cyber-terrorism related sites, X-rated pornography and gambling sites on the blacklist, the total number is likely to run into the tens of millions.

This expansion is likely to have a considerable affect on ISPs that adopt the ACMA blacklist. The Internet industry has long held concerns that such a move would clog Internet services at a time when the market demands faster broadband. This point can’t be underestimated. ISPs want nothing more than the pipe between themselves and their customer to be as fat as possible without interruptions. But with the Government mandating a filter device at the ISP level, Australians’ want and need for uninterruptable broadband might be at risk.

Even if the Government was to achieve its desired filtering system, it would in no way act as a foolproof measure to ensure banished content stays that way. We haven’t even waded into the ever mercurial force of peer-to-peer networking and torrents, something that the music and movie industries are actively moving towards shutting down.

Plans for a national ISP filtering service all seems a bit half-baked at the moment. We’re still left wondering what exactly this inevitable filter will encompass and what it will mean for our lives on the Internet. What is the real purpose of this filter – to filter out child pornography, or to filter out anything the Government deems “inappropriate?” Until Conroy holds his first major address to the industry at the Internet Industry Association general meeting on February 21, these questions will remain.

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