Opt-in ISP-level Internet filter wasn't feasible: Academics

ISP and PC-level filters both present difficulties, roundtable on ISP-level filtering says

UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile and Inspire Foundation acting chief executive officer Jonathan Nicholas at the University of Sydney discussion forum on the Australian Internet filtering scheme.

UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile and Inspire Foundation acting chief executive officer Jonathan Nicholas at the University of Sydney discussion forum on the Australian Internet filtering scheme.

An opt-in/opt-out ISP-level filter, first suggested in the February 2008 Feasibility Study into ISP Level Content Filtering, was never a feasible alternative to the current ACMA blacklist, according to academics and industry experts.

Speaking at a discussion forum hosted by the University of Sydney, industry experts Louise Collins and Associate Professor Bjorn Landfeldt agreed that the opt-in solution initially suggested during the early days of filter debates would threaten smaller Internet service providers (ISPs) and reduce competition in the market.

"You're asking an ISP to provide special capabilities to enable that," Collins said. "So that means that's going to take system development, network development. That will involve purchasing special equipment. It will involve training, call centre staff. It's not insignificant."

Both Collins and Landfeldt collaborated on the Feasibility Study into ISP Level Content Filtering, commissioned by the Howard Government. Landfeldt said that the report's initial suggestion was to have a two-tiered filtering system - a list-based one like the one offered by Senator Stephen Conroy, and a second, opt-in or opt-out system.

According to Landfeldt, Collins and a number of other industry experts present at the forum, neither are really feasible for service providers.

"It might sound nice to just opt-in," Collins said, "but I can assure that there is a whole lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes to enable a relatively simple mechanism to take place. It's not simple."

Collins could only remember two Australian ISPs currently offering an independent opt-in Internet filter - ITXtreme and South Australia-based Webshield. However, their clear objectives and organisational structure allowed them to offer the service, while other ISPs would find it difficult to implement.

"If you want to kill off the ISP industry and only have a few players left, you should go with that," Landfeldt said. "And who knows, it might free up resources for more sensible things. I just don't think it would be a nice thing to do to ISPs."

Speaking to Computerworld Australia ahead of the discussion forum, Landfeldt said the blacklist-based ISP filter - which is currently being pushed by Senator Stephen Conroy - would also have a negative impact on smaller ISPs, due to the costs involved in maintaining the filters across all users.

“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.

“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.”

Google representative Iarla Flynn reiterated claims Landfeldt made when talking to Computerworld Australia that PC-based filters would be a more effective alternative to any form of ISP-level filtering.

"There are plenty of tools out there already, and a challenge here is the awareness that people have around this," Flynn said.

The blacklist, a version of which was published by Wikileaks last year, has been criticised as out of date and too secretive. While those at the discussion agreed that the publication of the blacklist would negate its use, the vague definitions and slow bureaucratic process surrounding the list meant it was effectively useless.

"Unless it's on that list, it's not refused classification," UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile said at the forum. "It might be worse than anything on that list, but it hasn't been actually checked.

"There is no economically viable way to apply a refused classification test to the Internet. If it was a dollar each, that would be a trillion dollars. If it was $750 each, which is what the classification board charges, there would be a global financial crisis every day."

Collins said that the blacklist's key was the word "includes", which mean that while the list would cover those categories mentioned, it isn't explicitly restricted to those.

Tags isp-level internet content filtering

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So a better solution would be a filter at the user end, which was exactly the inexpensive option scrapped by Conroy. All because it was unpopular and so was replaced with a plan to force a costly filter on everybody that nobody seems to want. That's some first-rate incompetence, can we send this guy packing in the coming election without losing the much needed NBN.



It just dawned on me... the mandatory filter will be the greatest defence against child porn charges ever: "it wasn't filtered, so I thought it must have been ok". Now who's supporting paedophiles, Conroy?



Ah James, you wrote 'The blacklist, an early version of which was published by Wikileaks last year...'

The three leaked versions were last year's (2009) versions in March were current ones from the filter vendor at the time of the leak.

What do you mean it was an 'early version'? The list itself has been in existence since 1999!



McNair Ingenuity market research conducted a phone poll earlier this year that showed that a statistically significant number of Australians would support ISP level internet filtering _ONLY_ if the blacklist was made public along with the reasons for the content's censorship. Bringing things into line with exactly how books, movies, and magazines are handled right now.

Conroy claims doing this cannot be done because the list contains not only RC content, but also some 'illegal' content. Last year's leaked lists revealed that any previously 'illegal' content was taken down well before the list even made it to published print.

So the solution is simple, hand over any 'illegal' content to the police (< 1% of the list) and publish the rest of the RC content (> 99% of the list).

The fact Rudd wont even consider this option means that child safety has nothing to do with their real policy objectives.



This infuriates me. They could have made some opt-in DNS servers that blocked certain sites. Hell they could have had a few different DNS servers with varying levels of blocking.

This is trivial. It is being done for free already.

The government only needed to educate end users. That's it.

In fact, perhaps the ISP's could have even handled this. If a user has opted in to the filter, then provide their connection with the external filtered DNS servers through PPPoA or whatever.


Hutchinson James



Thanks for that, I've amended the article to make it clearer.



The current ACMA blacklist is opt in, it is not mandatory, takedown notices form the mandatory part of the current system.



Not feasible huh????

What about Internode's, already running, opt-out, optional firewall used by -all- ADSL customers?

It's already running and works fine. If the customer doesn't want to use it they just log in to their Internode support portal, uncheck the option and the filters are disabled for them.

Opt-In or Opt-out are both entirely feasible and relatively straight forward for ISP's to implement. All they need is a user interface that changes a route for their traffic. If the filter is turned on traffic goes via one path (via the filter) and if it is off it bypasses the filter. Simple.

(I should qualify this by saying I have worked in IT security for almost 12 years).



BenR is right, and you have to wonder why some academics are making ex cathedra pronouncements to the contrary.

It seems that, as with Opel, Conboy promptly canned the previous program offering free control software to those who wanted it because he wanted to mark out his new territory the way a dingo does.

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