Australian content filter pilots debunk critics

Participants say filtering debate is a 'storm in a teacup'

Australian internet service providers (ISPs) participating in the government’s clean-feed internet pilot have supported the scheme and poured cold water on claims the technology will not work.

The national clean feed internet scheme, part of the government’s A$128 million (NZ$161 million) Plan for Cyber Safety, will impose national content filtering for all internet connections and will block web pages detailed in two blacklists operated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

iPrimus CEO Ravi Bhati says the controversy around the scheme is a “storm in a teacup”.

“We are a family-oriented ISP and there has been significant demand from our customers for content filtering. Users can opt-in and opt-out whenever they want, which gives freedom to the customer.”

“ISP filtering can work insofar as the technical [theory], provided ISPs allocate systems in the right way and staff and supervisors are capable. The trial is not a big bad issue like it is made out to be; it can’t be compared to China because we are not doing anything like that, but are providing an option to customers to choose the content they want to view.

“I don’t think [ISPs] should call the shots; the ACMA is investing time and money in research and we will go by them.”

Bhati says critics should not pre-judge the capabilities of the content filters until results are available from the trials.

The “hundreds of thousands” of iPrimus customers will have the option to participate in the trials without the need to pre-register.

Perth-based ISP Highway1’s general manager Nick Power says an initial 50 customers have opted-in to the trial.

“We have only just emailed our general customer base [of 3000] asking if they wish to participate. On current feedback, we are receiving about a 40% positive and 60% negative participation rate for those that have responded to the email,” Powers says.

Some 98% of Highway1 customers are home office or SMEs spread across the country.

The company says on its website its participation in the trial will allow it to “objectively assess the technical viability of the filtering solution we have proposed to implement, not the relative merits of proposed legislation”, which it notes is “more valuable to us than relying solely on third party information”.

The ISP said its participation in the trial is not tantamount to backing the scheme, but only “legitimises our right to be able to comment authoritatively on the technical aspects of the viability of a proposed filtering implementation.” It will test DSL, SHDSL/broadband DSL and Ethernet connections.

Optus director of government and corporate affairs Maha Krishnapillai says the telco will make a decision to participate in the trials after the initial six-week round is completed.

“We remain absolutely committed to working with the government in blocking illegal activity and helping in any way we can, and we will wait to see the results of the trail,” Krishnapillai says.

A WebShield spokesman in charge of the ISP’s content filtering service says government policy will make or break the scheme.

“Network slowdown will come down to a matter of government policy — if they want to scan every video, analyse every image and look at every chat, networks may slow down,” he says, adding the company’s filters that monitor URLs and peer to peer do not affect internet speeds.

“We expressed an interest in the pilot primarily to demonstrate that the technology works. We understand the list will only block illegal content according to Australian law and not politically sensitive material.

“Most ISPs have the infrastructure in place to block blacklists, because they need to prevent access to their billing information systems, so implementation will be relatively easy.”

He says the sticking point for the scheme will be the implementation of the optional content filters which will ban extra inappropriate content.

“Everyone’s network setup is different, so I assume there will be large consultation between ISPs and government,” he says.

The company has more than 400 options for content filters, covering some 130 categories.

A new filtering option can be created in less than five minutes, and a series of fact sheets explain to customers the ramifications of allowing or blocking certain websites and protocols.

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