Australian ISP Filtering Nears Testing

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES – A controversial plan by the Australian government to initiate ISP-level content filtering is one step closer to reality with the end of public comments and the imminent roll-out of widespread testing.

Despite three government-funded studies that determined that ISP-level filtering doesn't work, the public testing of pornographic content filters from multiple vendors will soon begin in Tasmania under the supervision of Melbourne-based Enex TestLab.

Australia's National Classification Scheme was used to develop an official blacklist of domains that will be rejected by the filtering systems.

The filtering scheme, part of a $189 million anti-porn initiative, received support from the Australian Christian Lobby and was announced in a 2007 broadcast to more than 700 Australian churches.

Critics of the plan by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) are unhappy that the filters will be on by default – requiring customers to request unfiltered Internet access in order to "opt out" of the mandated program.

Questions over "false positives" blocking access to non-adult websites and the efficacy of the system at blocking actual pornographic content linger, as do public concerns over the motivation behind the flawed program.

Writing for ARS Technica, Ryan Paul noted that "The Australian government's complete disregard for the prior studies on the inefficacy of ISP-level filtering make it seem clear that this filtering plan is politically motivated rather than inspired by legitimate concerns."

According to a statement released by Enex, it is inviting "vendors of all types (hardware appliances, software – proprietary or open-source) of ISP-based Internet content filters to participate" in the trials, which are scheduled to be completed by July, with vendors "involved in the installation and configuration of their filters to ensure their correct deployment."

In a different anti-porn initiative back in 2006, the Australian government spent $116 million on a PC-based filtering system, because three government studies concluded that ISP-level filtering would be more costly and less effective than PC software filters used by consumers.

16-year-old Tom Wood demonstrated just how quickly the PC filter could be breached, however, leaving lawmakers and the enemies of free speech to seek an alternative option; settling on the $89 million ISP-level filtering scheme that proponents hope will be impossible to thwart.

The cost isn't just to the taxpayer; with consumers and ISPs bearing the expense as well.

"In the case of personal computers the cost of upgrading processing power may be modest (although significant in terms of household income)," stated the ACMA. "However, for ISPs the cost of upgrading or augmenting the expensive hardware that they typically deploy may be substantial, particularly for small providers."

The ability of any current filtering scheme to meet the goal of protecting children is also questioned by the government itself.

"The risks to Australian youth are primarily those associated with Web 2.0 services – potential contact by sexual predators, cyber-bullying by peers and misuse of personal information," stated a report by the ACMA. "Filters are currently unable to sift the content of communication between users using instant messaging or chat services."