Aussie 'net filtering trial set for failure, say critics

Providers and privacy advocates declare study results biased and worthless

A glowing report on the government's national internet content filtering scheme has again outraged telecommunications providers and privacy advocates who declared the results biased and worthless.

ISP content filtering is part of the government's A$125.8 million (NZ$162 million) Plan for Cyber Safety which will split funds between law enforcement, technology and education to reduce the proliferation of child porn and inappropriate content.

The report follows laboratory trials by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) that began in June last year and tested six internet content filters for accuracy and network load. Tests were set in a Telstra lab on a Tier 3 broadband network with a load of 30 simulated users.

Results showed marked improvements in the accuracy and efficiency of content filters since the previous report commissioned in 2005. However, experts say the results are not good enough for wide scale deployment.

Electronic Frontiers Association chair Dale Clapperton says the government's upcoming pilot will fail.

"We view this test as anything but successful. These filters will wrongly block access to about 3% of the internet if they are forced on Australians, and while the Minister may regard this as an acceptable level of collateral damage, we do not," Clapperton says.

"The government needs to provide more information on what they want to block access to because it ranges from child porn to "inappropriate material".

"The [upcoming] trials are targeting a lot more than child pornography and illegal content."

Clapperton says the government needs to provide more information on what content will be blocked, and expressed concern that the blacklists in the trials were set to ban all material rated from R18+ to a "strong" M.

He says part of the criteria, which tested the ability of the filters to block illegal content, could be seen as an attempt to "overstate the accuracy" of the filters because the manufacturers design the technology with the blacklist built in.

"The filters couldn't even block 100% of content that they are designated to block by the manufacturers," he says.

Author of NetAlarmed.com, a parody website of the internet filtering scheme, and web production manager Michael Meloni says the lab trial was too small to indicate whether the filters will work at an ISP level.

"With [the 1% to 8% false positive rate], Australians are going to come up against quite a few blocked sites each day that should not be blocked. I don't think they will tolerate it," Meloni says.

"The internet contains hundreds of thousands of websites not appropriate for children by our classification standards and we can't block them all."

The results are further tainted by the 3930 sample URLs used in the trial, according to Meloni, because the filters will have to block access to millions of websites.

He says the problem is exacerbated by the inability of the solutions to filter file sharing networks.

iiNet chief regulatory officer Stephen Dalby says the small error margins in the report will become gaping holes if the technology is deployed nationally.

"We think the solution is simply unworkable," Dalby says.

"Monitoring your children's activity and using a [local] content filter is far better than relying on some bureaucratic blacklist."

He says police who lecture with him at schools agree the best solution is parental supervision and user-level content filters and security measures.

Minister Conroy shut down the former government's NetAlert content filtering scheme last December, and redirected funds to the national filtering plan.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia in a previous article on the content filtering scheme, director of an Albury-based ISP Ross Wheeler says the plan will hit the wallets of ISPs and consumers.

"I have no doubt, absolutely no doubt, that this will come straight out of the pockets of consumers and will sink small ISPs," Wheeler says.

He says internet content filtering is impossible in Australia because of network configurations.

"If the government came to me and said you must filter this data, I couldn't do it."

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Tags content filteringSecurity IDACMA

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