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.