The burden of managing the costs associated with the implementation of ISP-level filtering could put many of Australia’s smaller ISPs out of business, according to a University of Sydney academic.
Speaking to Computerworld Australia ahead of an industry discussion panel, Associate Professor Bjorn Landfeldt of the university’s School of Information Technologies said size does matter.
“It’s definitely going to have a negative impact on the smaller ISPs. For them, any costs [associated with the ISP filter] are going to be very detrimental, and basically threaten their existence,” he said.
“But for the larger ISPs – Telstra and Optus – I think they welcome this filter as it will wipe out a bit of their opposition. Not that it will mean a lot of extra revenue, but it will make the landscape plainer for them.”
Landfelft, who had a hand in drafting the Howard Government-commissioned February 2008 Feasibility Study into ISP Level Content Filtering, said it was clear there were serious concerns around the costs associated with the filtering plan.
“The [filtering] equipment itself can by quite cheap but it is the maintenance when they have to deal with customer enquiries about filters or complaining that they came across something that should have been filtered; basically, people not understanding that they have to go to ACMA,” he said.
Customer care related costs were also likely to include call centre training, changes or upgrades to customer relationship management systems, and changes to billing systems.
Landfeldt also pointed to the Feasibility Study’s finding that smaller ISPs feared there may be other costs related to the operation of such a filtering service that will be harder to quantify, such as potential impacts to brand value – especially with erroneous filtering - and performance related issues.
Additionally, many smaller ISPs will not have adequate in house technical expertise with which to set up and maintain any filtering solution, and will need to bear the cost of outsourcing any solution developments.
Landfelt argued that a more effective regime – one that would cut down costs for ISPs, and also limit the degree of child exposure to harmful content – would be a return to free, optional PC-based filters.
“The ISP-level filter will only filter a very small subset of the Web. There are a whole range of other material they would not want their children to get access to, and a PC-based web filter would do a much better job of that,” he said.
“It would be a much better use of public money to bring back those [PC] filters, and actually educate the public on how use them and their benefits.”
Internode network engineer, and critic of the mandatory ISP-level filter, Mark Newtown, said the cost to ISPs of having to maintain a mandatory ISP-level filter hinged on whether the Government mandated that any filter installed by an ISP actually had to work.
"If the systems are allowed to fail, then they can be quite cheap - essentially, design a system which automatically bypasses when it's over-capacity, then install the absolute lowest-spec system you can get away with, and just assume that it'll spend almost all of its working life bypassed," Newton said.
"On the other hand, if there are penalties for censorware not working properly, the whole system gets a lot more complicated. The system would need to be funded to exceed the ISP's peak demand, and you'd need at least two of them so that you still provided censorship even if one of them was offline, and if a technical fault took them both offline you'd need to cut customers' Internet access until the fault was fixed."
Further, ISPs would be faced with having to regularly rebuild their ISP-level filter in line with the industry trend toward a doubling of network traffic load every 12 - 18 months, Newton added.
"By then and the original system you designed would no longer be able to keep up," he said. "The costs of a system like that would add up very quickly indeed, and would rapidly turn into a major part of the cost of Internet service delivery."
An Optus spokesperson decline to directly address Landfeldt's claims, and referred Computerworld to the company's December 2009 statement on its participation in the mandatory ISP-level filter trials.
“The mandatory blocking of RC content is important, but must be complemented with a broader Government approach to cyber-safety and the protection of children on the Internet, including initiatives to promote education, awareness and counselling," the statement reads.
Similarly, a Telstra spokesperson also declined to directly address Landfeldt's claims, referring Computerworld to a December statement on ISP-level filtering.
"It is important to recognise, as the Government has, that there is no silver bullet which will make the internet 100 per cent safe. The blocking of a blacklist of RC sites is one element ofthe multi-faceted approach that is required to create a safer online environment," the statement reads.
In March, a spokeswoman for communications minister Stephen Conroy, said the government is considering a grants scheme for ISPs that introduce “wider levels of filtering on a commercial basis”.
But in a written statement Conroy's spokeswoman reiterated the government's position that it should not need to pay, based on other developed countries that have deployed Internet filter schemes without public funds.
The Making The Internet Safe: Will ISP Filtering Work? panel will also feature Google’s Iarla Flynn, Louise Collins, the primary author of the Feasibility of ISP Level Content Filtering report, Jonathan Nicholas, acting CEO at the Inspire Foundation, and David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales.