Mandatory ISP filtering is the main element of the Australian Government’s $125.8 million Plan for "Cyber-Safety". But anyone in Australia naive enough to believe this prurient and populist ISP filtering plan will work, should look carefully at what is happening in Europe with the Swedish bit torrent tracker site The Pirate Bay. Pirate Bay is a database of links to music and films offered on peer to peer networks without the copyright owners’ permission. Four days ago, Italian authorities attempted to block the site after an anti-piracy court ruling. Critics couldn’t help noticing that Prime Minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi owns a lot of the companies who stood to gain from banning the site. In any event, the ban was easily circumvented. Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunder said they implemented countermeasures to allow Italians to access their site. “We’re working on setting up a really annoying system for them to filter,” he said.
The move mirrors failed attempts elsewhere in Europe and only serves to strengthen the site. Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy would be well advised to pay close attention to the European experience as he blunders on with his local ISP filtering plan. Conroy claimed the initial Tasmanian-based trials, which concluded last month, were “successful” and saying the industry had made significant progress with ISP filtering products. The report is “Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filtering” (pdf) which was issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). In a 28 July media release, Conroy hailed a report on the trial’s findings as assisting “the Government to deliver on its election commitment to create a safer online environment.”
However others say Conroy is being disingenuous and has not accurately relayed the report’s findings. The Someone Think of the Children (STOTC) blog parsed Conroy’s cherry picking of the results and found them wanting in most cases. The blog described the trial as a miserable failure and picked out five key deficiencies: low numbers of the test base, low numbers of filtered sites, the inability to filter ‘secure’ HTPPS traffic, no analysis of circumvention methods, and no analysis of cost. STOTC said it “looks like a failure dressed up by a Senator with an obsession on controlling what you can and can’t see.”
Labor’s mandatory ISP Internet blocking plan dates back to a pre-election commitment made in March 2006. The then-Beazley led party promised to give “peace of mind” to parents concerned by exposure to children of “violent and pornographic material on the internet.” The plan would force all ISPs to perform mandatory censorship in order to provide a so-called “clean feed” Internet service. This was populist policy on the run, guaranteed to win the support of the hysterical talk radio and tabloid current affairs media.
The then-Liberal Minister for Communications Helen Coonan sensibly retorted with the view that filtering software would be the worst of both worlds. It would slow down Internet traffic without providing effective protection to children. Coonan preferred PC level filtering and said the Coalition had a three-pronged approach that involved legislation, regulation and education of parents and of children. She said that ISP level filtering was an inadequate solution that misses content, does not block all kinds of content and was not adaptable. “For instance, what might be suitable for a 17-year-old is certainly not suitable for a five-year-old,” she told the Senate, “and there is no way with ISP filtering to be able to tailor-make the kind of internet experience that people wish to have.”
Nevertheless Stephen Conroy took the media-friendly “clean feed” policy to the election and retained it after Labor's victory. Conroy justified this stance based on a claim that two-thirds of parents couldn’t afford the PC level filter. However a 2005 ACMA survey (pdf - page 64) rebuffed this reasoning saying that just 3 users out of 281 surveyed did not install a filter because of cost concerns. Instead, half the respondents said they trusted their children and simply didn’t feel the need to do it. The same report said that almost all parents reported that they were involved in their child’s Internet use in some way. The report completely undermines Labor’s rationale for mandatory filtering.
There may be other nasty unintended consequences of mandatory filtering. Somebody Think of the Children warns that blogs could also be targeted. Because bloggers write diverse content often using swear words and slang, they could be a prime target for blunt filtering software. STOTC also believes that getting sites unbanned “may well be impossible”. The activist group Electronic Frontiers Australia have launched a campaign called “No Clean Feed” against Conroy’s Internet censorship. The Pirate Bay experience shows it can be circumvented anyway. The whole exercise is a colossal waste of time and money. It is far more about protecting electoral margins than it is about protecting children.