Is the internet going down down under?
The battle is now on for the soul of the Australian internet. The outcome could have enormous repercussions for the future of the internet in the UK.
Regular readers will be aware of the Australian Government's plans to clamp down on the internet down under. These, the brainchild of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, have been bubbling away since last year, and began, as so many half-baked government schemes do, with the plea that someone "think of the children".
The scheme would put in place a server-level content filtering system, to block material unsuitable for children. The cat was put well and truly amongst the pigeons with the recent claim by Internode network engineer Mark Newton that there will be no opt-out from filtering for parents.
Rather, there will be a blacklist that parents can opt into to "protect their children".
But failing to opt into that list would merely switch users to an alternative filtering system, trapping content deemed unsuitable for adults.
According to Newton: "That is the way the testing was formulated, the way the upcoming live trials will run, and the way the policy is framed; to believe otherwise is to believe that a government department would go to the lengths of declaring that some kind of internet content is illegal, then allow an opt-out".
Cue outrage from the leaders of three of Australia's largest internet service providers — Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett. They variously describe the scheme as "loony", a "bugger to implement", likely to slow down Australian access to the internet significantly, and quite possibly illegal.
According to Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, "you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation" just to achieve this.
Is this such an impossible task? We spoke to CensorNet, a UK company that provides software that enables official bodies to filter out content in the UK, and which is speaking to a couple of Australian ISPs about this project. Its view is that the slow down feared by ISPs is unlikely.
However, the firm foresees two issues with any solution. Most filters tackle just the HTTP protocol. But HTTP accounts for an average of 25 per cent of a user's bandwidth, with the rest taken up by other traffic, including email, peer-to-peer and instant messaging.
The other issue is about identifying the content to filter in the first place. Most filtering systems use a database that categorises content, and then blocks or filters webpages according to category. CensorNet uses the RuleSpace technology, which automatically classifies web content before filtering.
At present, no automated classification works perfectly - no system can automatically detect content that is allegedly "illegal" - and RuleSpace is no exception. A popular implementation for, say, schools is to block specified categories and unclassified content. Whether adults would be happy with a solution that could block over half the internet from their screens is another matter.
A spokesperson for Stephen Conroy's office tells us that fears are misplaced and nothing has yet been finalised. Rather, they are "in the final stages of preparing an expressions of interest document for ISPs to take part in a field pilot".
They add that $128.5m has been set aside "for a comprehensive cyber-safety program that focuses on education, research, ISP filtering and law enforcement". The focus will be on material such as "child pornography, cruelty or real violence, and sexual violence" that is "already illegal".
Their plans are not unrealistic, because this sort of material "is currently being filtered by a number of ISPs in countries such as the UK, Sweden, Norway and Canada with no impact on network speeds or performance".
This is not strictly true: some minor filtering of web content goes on in these jurisdictions, but nothing on the scale envisaged by the Australian Government.
The Register spoke with Greens communications spokesperson and one of the leading parliamentary opponents of this scheme, Senator Scott Ludlam. To begin with, he expressed surprise that the government had got itself caught up in what was turning out to have such negative voter appeal. He said: "This has come out of nowhere. I don't think they realised just how unpopular this proposal would be. Nor have they understood the technical implications of what they are proposing."
Asked whether he believed that the government would get its plans through, he was slightly more reticent. "If the Liberals, the Greens and the two independent members of the Senate oppose this proposal then it will fail. It is likely that the Greens will oppose - although to be honest, we need to understand better what the government is actually proposing.
"Their plans are fluid at present. We're not altogether sure whether they're aiming at child porn or casting the net wider.
"There already exist measures that blacklist sites that host specifically illegal content and a legal basis for doing this: but the proposals coming out of government sound like they are shifting the goalpost from blocking what is specifically illegal to what is considered to be 'inappropriate'.
"As far as we can tell, people just don't see the need for such an expansion of censorship."
Meanwhile, as opposition grows, the debate has turned dirty, with Stephen Conroy's Office apparently leaning on the Internet Industry Association (IIA) to put pressure on Mark Newton.
So what are the implications for the UK? The $64,000 question is whether the UK either can or will go down the filtering route.
Discussions with the Home Office reveal a desire on the part of the Home Secretary to do this for sites that incite terror - though there are no details yet. However, the Internet Watch Foundation claims one reason that it is not interested in wholescale filtering is that this is just not technically feasible.
Martin Salter, MP, architect of recent laws on "extreme porn" also claims that the government needed to criminalise individuals because blocking is not possible. However, despite repeated requests he has failed to explain these remarks.
In the end, what happens in Australia will affect us all. If their filtering scheme falls flat on its face, expect to hear little more of it. If it is implemented and works in however half-arsed a fashion, look forward to proposals to filter the UK internet in a couple of years time.
No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.
Return to internet news headlines
View Internet News Archive