Opposition hits back at Aussie internet censorship

Attempts to curb critical commentary on plan slammed

The newly appointed Australian shadow broadband minister, Senator Nick Minchin, says he is appalled that a member of communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy's office had tried to curb severely critical comments made by Internode network engineer Mark Newton regarding the government's internet content filtering scheme.

Labor's plan for content filtering will require internet service providers (ISPs) to offer a clean feed internet service to all homes, schools and public internet access points.

Under the scheme there will be two blacklists: one which blocks illegal material, such as child pornography; and another blacklist, referred to in a department press release, which blocks a list of material deemed unsuitable for children.

Users can opt out of the latter blacklist, but there is no opt-out for "illegal content".

ISPs have warned that blanket content filtering will cripple internet speeds because the technology is not up to scratch. Civil libertarians such as the Electronic Frontiers Foundation have warned that filtering could lead to censorship of drugs, political dissidence, information on euthanasia and other legal freedoms, in addition to mistakenly blocking legitimate material. A content filtering scheme installed within the offices of parliament in May reportedly blocked legitimate topics such as gun control and breast-feeding.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last week that a policy advisor at Senator Conroy's office had sent an email to the Internet Industry Association (IIA) expressing concern that Internode's Mark Newton, as an IIA member, was behaving "irresponsibly" with regard to criticisms he made of Conroy's controversial content filtering scheme on the popular Whirlpool broadband forum.

SMH reported that the email was accompanied by a phone call demanding the message be passed on to senior Internode management.

"I am appalled that a member of Senator Conroy's staff is apparently trying to bully the IIA over this matter," Minchin told Computerworld.

"That association is perfectly entitled to express its views and indeed it is very important that the public and the parliament understand the views of the IIA on this matter, and they shouldn't be bullied by Senator Conroy or his staff. It is absolutely out of line and Senator Conroy should discipline that staff member," the shadow minister for broadband said.

Minchin said Newton was in fact a constituent of his in South Australia and had written to him with concerns regarding the content filtering scheme. Minchin responded at the time that the opposition was "certainly not" committed to supporting the scheme in parliament.

"When we left office it was our view that we had appropriate arrangements in place in relation to this issue of filtering. The NetAlert scheme we launched in August last year, and which is still in place, we believe strikes the right balance in terms of ensuring that Australians who want to ensure that their children are not exposed to child pornography have the information at hand, the capacity and the free software that enables them to do so," Minchin said.

Minchin indicated that he had young children in his home and found NetAlert to be a suitable content filter in addition to monitoring the children's activities online.

"But Labor went to the election and won on the basis of this, frankly, very heavy-handed one-size-fits-all ISP-based content filter. It's not a policy we would have adopted; we have considerable reservations about how it could possibly work."

Internode's Newton, speaking to Computerworld, said the move by the member of Conroy's department to silence his criticism was inappropriate and an attempt to curb free speech.

"What they have done is desperate and below inappropriate; it's absolute bullshit," Newton said.

"The IIA had nothing to do with it."

The IIA is liaising with ISPs that will participate in an upcoming live trial of the filtering technology to determine the appropriate metrics and architecture to be used.

IIA CEO Peter Coroneos said the association is a conduit for information on the content filtering scheme between industry and Conroy's office, and did not want to be involved in the debate.

"We think it is necessary to have the evidence before us because without the details, it is difficult to comment on the implications of the [scheme's] policy and what the implementation issues will be," Coroneos said.

"We are advising ISP members [of IIA] of the existence of the trial as part of the government consultation process. It is up to individual members whether they involve themselves in the trial. Cost and performance needs to be tested, and to its credit, the government is reserving its policy until the details come through."

But Minchin believes the trials are already a foregone conclusion.

"We'll watch the government's trials of this and we are prepared to consider what comes out of those trials. But our presumption is this cannot and will not work, it's very heavy-handed.

"Like anything in life it's about finding the right balance between the basic freedoms we all expect to have in a democracy like ours while at the same time wanting to protect minors from exposure to material we prefer they didn't see. We think the arrangements that we had in place when we left office struck that balance."

In a posting to the Australian Network Operators Group mailing list, CEO of PIPE Networks Bevan Slattery also voiced his concern at the interference of government officials with the IIA, and the potential of the content filtering scheme to enter the realm of censorship.

"The IIA now needs to make a clear, concise and public statement on it's position with respect to both the response to Government regarding their request to seek censorship on their behalf and secondly the idea of censoring all "illegal" content on the internet," he wrote.

"I also fear that as every URL is now being checked it is highly likely that this, or a future government will require every URL to be recorded/retained against the account. So not only will Australian's internet use be censored, but highly likely, be historically recorded for later investigation. Now we are in China. They will use "child pornography" as the tag to get the filter in place and "terrorism" to get the URL history in place."

Slattery warned that the filtering scheme could be circumvented by people using remote (out of country) Virtual Private Network (VPN) services to obtain their content free from government logging, or worse still, establish a cottage industry in closed encrypted networks.

"Sounds familiar? The Government may start to ban encrypted VPN's without government approval. Now we are in India three years ago. Alternatively the Government may just ban organisations/people from using VPN's with higher than 40-bit encryption. Now we are in the US seven years ago. Keep this up and we will be in 1984. Mind you I think we are there already."

"I would have thought this issue is of such importance that the Government would spend a little more time considering the repercussions of imposing "blanket decisions" without appropriate consultation. Much like blanket guarantees on bank deposits, these well-intended decisions will have serious implications and unintended consequences on those who the Government is trying to protect."

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