Telstra and Optus disagree on ISP filter blocking notification page

Wider industry provides its feedback on the Government's measures to increase accountability and transparency for Refused Classification material

Australia’s two largest telcos have knocked heads once more over a key element in the Government’s mandatory ISP filtering plan.

In their submissions to Government’s proposed measures to increase accountability and transparency for Refused Classification material, Telstra and Optus are arguing opposing sides on the question of whether or not to notify a user who has landed on a filtered website page.

In its submission Telstra said it strongly supports all measures that improve the transparency and accountability of the RC content list where those measures had “no countervailing negative consequences”.

“However, we do not support the option of using a blocking notification page to indicate that access to particular content has been blocked because we believe that it will have the perverse effect of making RC content more easily available,” the Telstra submision reads. “Blocking notification pages can be easily phished by a technically astute user so that the URL of the blocked site becomes transparent to that user, who could then publish it.

“If the contents of the RC list is published it could be used as a directory of harmful content, which would therefore become more easily available to users that are able to circumvent the ISP filter or who are located overseas.”

The company said an alternative to using a blocking notification page would for blocked pages to be allowed to time out.

“The advantage of this alternative is that there would be no opportunity for users to phish a blocking notification page and learn the URL of the blocked content,” the Telstra said.

In contrast, in its submission Optus said it concurred with the proposals for a standardised ‘block’ notification page, including that it state that a user’s Internet browser has attempted to access content which has been classified as RC and that it provide information on how the user can seek a review of this if she or he believes that an error has been made.

“Optus further believes that it is important that a ‘block’ notification page has a standardised presentation and be centrally maintained by a government agency and, as such, it would be logical and practical for it to be hosted and operated by ACMA,” the submission reads.

“Our understanding is that it should be reasonably straightforward for ISPs to redirect Internet users to a central government-hosted ‘block’ page.”

Optus also added that an ongoing review of the mandatory ISP filtering scheme should also encompasses the technical and physical security of the RC content list, including matters such as encryption and procedures ensuring that access to it is tightly restricted and controlled.

“For example, there will need to be automated and robust ‘system-to-system’ transmission processes in place between ACMA and ISPs subject to the filtering scheme to prevent access to the actual content contained in the RC list,” the submission reads.

“Exit conditions are almost as important as entry conditions onto the list to ensure that the number of URLs remains as small as possible to promote efficient filtering and also to ensure the regime is focussed on blocking access to sites which exist and which currently contain RC material.”

Wider industry comment

In its submission, Microsoft Australia said it did not support the notion of a review by an industry group of RC content list classification processes.

“Microsoft believes the public in general and not 'industry' representatives are the appropriate review group for both classified material and the classification process,” the company’s submission reads. “The public are represented in this system through the Classification Board and the Parliament and Microsoft believes that ultimately these bodies should be responsible for supervising and reviewing the operation of this system of censorship.”

The Internet Industry Association (IIA) said it remained concerned about the mandatory nature of the proposals having particular regard to the broad scope of content that is encompassed.

“In particular, this can include socially and politically controversial material such as educational content on safer drug use, along with content covering instructions on any crime, including for example 'euthanasia', on which many Australians are divided and State and Territory Governments have legislated for in the past,” the IIA’s submission reads. “As a result members have expressed concerns about the possibility of blocking content, where possessing that material would otherwise be legal in Australia.”

Yahoo! Australia echoed the IIA’s comments arguing that mandatory filtering of all RC material could block content with a strong social, political and/or educational value.

“Clearly some of this content is controversial and, depending on one’s political beliefs, rather offensive however we maintain that there is enormous value in this content being available to encourage debate and inform opinion,” the submission reads.

“Furthermore, the existing classification regime has developed in a piecemeal and reactionary manner with little regard to or basis upon empirical evidence around public attitudes or expert studies into how consumers interact with media, and particularly digital media.”

The recently released paper titled Untangling the Net: The Scope of Content Caught by Mandatory Internet Filtering by Professors Catherine Lumby, Lelia Green and John Hartley 2009 provides several examples where knee jerk regulatory reactions to ‘controversial’ content have been entirely out of step with broader public opinion.

Yahoo! urges the Government to review the RC category within the existing classification regime, the scope of content that has been positioned within this category, and its applicability to online media.

As reported by ComputerworldThe Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU) has voiced its criticism of the Federal Government’s mandatory ISP-level content filter, arguing ISPs should have no role in determining what content their customers can access.

“We do not support the Government’s announced policy to require ISPs to block Refused Classification (RC) rated material hosted on overseas servers,” its submission reads. “ISPs should not have a role in determining content that their customers access. Their only proper role is to transfer packets from the sender to the recipient(s).”

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Tags mandatory internet fiteringisp-level internet content filteringISPsSenator Stephen ConroyoptusAustralian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)Telstra

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