Further thoughts on the filter

Monday, December 21st, 2009 @ 5:55PM

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to contribute so far. I have read all the posts and have outlined some ideas as to how the policy could better reflect the original election commitment of a mandatory filter for children.  I am very conscious that this direction will never satisfy those who continue to be ideologically and implacably opposed to a filter, and I respect their position. Nonetheless please understand I have responsibility as a government Senator (and member of the ALP) to make a constructive effort to address the major concerns and make the broad intentions of the policy effective in a meaningful and practical sense.

In summary, concerns raised traversed the disparity with the original election commitment and the policy released, the technical testing not reflecting the current and future network environment raising concerns about network performance impact, weaknesses of blacklist filtering creating a false sense of security, secrecy and lack of appeals and scope creep in relation to blacklist, loss of Australia’s reputation for openness and inconsistency with policy directions for ALP generally relating to the digital economy.

I take the criticism for not offering daily feedback  to comments but I thought a more considered post in light of the views expressed would be a better way to express myself. Obviously, there have been some very strong opinions aired. I want to thank Pia for her contributions too!

So I wanted to start by reflecting on a key point that came up again and again: our original policy.

Our policy from 2007 was expressed as follows:

Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.

The way it was communicated publicly included reference to a capacity for adults to ‘opt out’. For example this news story (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/12/31/2129471.htm) states “Senator Conroy says anyone wanting uncensored access to the internet will have to opt out of the service.”

Many people have expressed their frustration and disappointment in the ALP for announcing the final policy to be mandatory for everyone, without reference to an adult opt-out option. As one comment read: “So while the term opt-out was never explicitly used, there is more than enough ambiguity and suggestion within your fact sheet to suggest to anyone reading it that this “clean feed” would be optional, at least within certain circumstances”. Another comment says “My expectation is that Labor would deliver on their promise, which was an optional clean feed”.

In other words, there was an ambivalent reaction to the policy at the time of the election policy because it was not understood to be a mandatory filter for the general population.  For example, it says “A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.” The key word there is ‘offer’and people are very comfortable with ISPs being required to offer a clean feed service that individuals can choose to use. This is supposed to be the how it works currently. The document goes on to say “Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children.” This was a stronger statement mandating filtering for internet connected computers accessed by children. It still does not say the whole population.  Additionally people reflected on the small amount of time to absorb or analyse the policy prior to the last election because it was released just 5 days prior, so there was not a lot of time to understand, debate, clarify or discuss it to the level of detail that is possible now, hence the groundswell of interest (note the surveys showing massive discomfort with the policy).

Given the election commitment stated thus “Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children” an ‘opt-out’ for adults appears to be consistent where children are not subsequently affected by the uncensored content.

As I mentioned in my first post, an adult ‘opt-out’ is far from optimal given the potential stigma associated with it. However, the feedback is overwhelmingly that having an adult ‘opt-out’ is far preferable than not. Far preferable still was an ‘opt-in’ approach.

Another idea was put forward which caught my attention was requiring home internet users to make an active (or mandatory) ‘choice’ when they initiate their ISP account, (or at the commencement of the filtered service) either for a filtered or unfiltered service. The merit of this approach may be that of itself, making an active choice informs parents of the fact that the filter is a part of a broader policy for internet safety, and has its limitations.

To satisfy the policy objective of a mandatory filter for children, active acknowledgement that the subscriber is aware the government strongly recommends a filtered option for homes where children use the internet could be a part of this active (mandatory) choice.

I note that a great deal of concern was expressed in comments about the practical limitations of a blacklist filter and how this could mislead parents into thinking all risks were mitigated.

As I said in my previous post, my preferred approach is providing parents with a range of tools to make the right the choices for the safety of their children, so from my personal perspective, an active (mandatory) choice creates a specific opportunity of engagement for the government with parents and internet users to consider the other risks that the filter cannot address, be it peer to peer (unwanted/illegal) content sharing, cyber-bullying or identity theft.

This pro-active engagement offers government a realistic and practical platform of trust with the citizens they are trying to assist by making the internet safer by setting clear expectations if they opt-in. ISP’s could, if they assessed there was interest in the market, offer a range of filter options, again providing an informed choice for internet users.

In addition, the government is also providing a platform of trust with people who are ideologically opposed to the filter, or for other legitimate reasons such as network performance, as they could, with no stigma, effectively opt out of the filtered service.

This takes me to the next major focus of comment: the credibility of the tests on the impact of the filter on internet speeds.  Concern about degradation of the performance of the internet has not been allayed by the release of the report, given my reading of the comments about the testing. There is enough specific technical concern about the filter test report that a sort of peer review is occurring.  Here is a summary of some of the technical concerns raised:

  • The filter test was successful in blocking 1000 URLs without a significant impact on speed, however there is widespread concern that this is not enough to allay the concerns about performance. Here are some of the technical concerns with the test:
  • The scope of the trial was too limited – to block all RC content would mean blocking millions of addresses, but the trial only dealt with 1000, and even the Telstra ‘independent’ analysis only tested 10,000 URLs. For some context, there are over a trillion web pages on the Internet.
  • There is serious doubt the solution can scale, and questions as to the impact on the NBN, because the trial did not test 100Mb bandwidth.
  • The trial only tested static pages, not dynamic content: online content is increasingly dynamic involving much more complex filtering systems which would likely have an increased impact on the speed of service.
  • Websites delivering content that is RC can continue delivering content with relative ease through changing the URL of the content, the use of peer to peer networks, VPNs, HTTPS (secure HTTP), or through many other mechanisms. So even once blocked, content can be made accessible through other means from the providers end.
  • The trial report explicitly stated that “A technically competent user could, if they wished, circumvent the filtering technology.” This raises the question of whether penalties for circumvention will apply even when RC content is not accessed, including for many young people who are technologically capable. It also raises questions about what, if any penalty would be applied to individuals who circumvent, opt-out or otherwise access material on the black list, even if the material is not illegal other than it is on the blacklist.
  • The risk of “false positives”: the report indicates “filtering of innocuous content” was 3.3%. This is a very large amount of content to inappropriately block once you extrapolate to the sorts of numbers that would be necessary on a blacklist. Concerns expressed included that false positives could mean Australian businesses being blocked from their customers and market, without (at this point) any clear mechanism to check, appeal or overturn the addition of their webpage to the blacklist.
  • This point also relates to unintended consequences of filtering. For example in the UK where a Wikipedia page was blocked as “potentially illegal” resulting in the ability to edit Wikipedia pages being completely inaccessible to the UK (http://apcmag.com/internet_filter_stuffup_cuts_off_wikipedia.htm).

So please let me know your thoughts. I haven’t been able to reflect on everything so bear with me. and thanks again to those who have taken the time to prepare thoughtful, comprehensive contributions in particular  it is helpful. Obviously I will continue to read the comments through the Christmas break and  I also intend to bring these concerns to the attention of my colleagues and pursue my ideas in the new year.

UPDATE: Please note – our office is closed as of the 18th December till 4th January for the holidays.

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    408 Comments to "Further thoughts on the filter" add comment
    July 1, 2012 at 12:46 am

    Wow what agood peice