Opinion: The Filter is dead, but it'll be back

National security imperatives will ensure some kind of net filter will be on the agenda in future

The Greens' success over the weekend in cementing their hold on the balance of power in the Senate has sounded the death knell for the government’s controversial ISP-level internet content filter.

While the plan had been delayed in July with the Federal Attorney-General‘s office to review the filter blacklist - or refused classification content - to be administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the weekend’s election result means for the next few years the filter will not get legislative approval as the Greens have committed to blocking it.

The drowning of the much-hated filter could be cemented further should the Coalition be able to form a minority government with the gang of five independents.

But I don’t think the election result or recent delays in implementing the technology means the end for ISP- or national-level internet filters. Or at least, it doesn’t mean we won’t still have to debate variants of them in future.

Like many in the industry I’m not a supporter of the Labor government’s filter plan – on the contrary I think its aims were terrible, the scope liable to dangerous creep and the suggested execution laughable to the point of despair.

However, unless a completely free and uncensored internet feed is enshrined as a fundamental right in our constitution, it will be considered by other governments in future. And I don’t see a bill of rights that includes this tenet happening anytime soon.

The internet as it stands today is one of only very few national borders that are not tightly regulated by government. So it is only natural that those tasked with ensuring the security of our nation will ask why, especially as most other avenues for the flow of goods, services and information are tightly controlled.

As we continue to embrace a more digital economy and important infrastructure and services are linked to the internet, this will only become more germane.

The view that the internet should be an unfettered domain, free from the limitations imposed by nation state borders, while somewhat noble, will never sit well with those that view national security as the priority for a government.

One only has to look at the recent developments with various states threatening to shut down BlackBerry services as evidence for the emerging opposition to the free for all that has existed in many places to date.

Now, while many readers will be jumping up and down at the moment saying the filtering technology can be circumvented too easily – and they are absolutely right when it comes to content filtering – there will be technological advancements that give cause for politicians, policy makers and defence bodies to broach the idea of a filter again.

It might not have anything to do with refused classification material or stuff that we don’t think kids should see, it might not be at the ISP-level (think international submarine cables and wholesale satellite services), it might not be the same kind of technology, and it might not even be called a filter, but those tasked with national security would not be doing their job if they didn’t consider some kind of strategy – even one that remains dormant until needed - to block (read: filter) and defend against adversarial and belligerent parties’ online efforts.

All it would take is one incident that significantly threatens national interests (of all varieties) in a very public way for the filter topic to be on the agenda again.

I’m not suggesting it would be impossible to get around and that people wouldn’t try – we all know most online security is reactive and the skills to attack are often far more advance then those to defend – but I would hazard a guess most governments would like to have some kind of ‘filter’ in their arsenal.

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