As the government fine-tunes plans to regulate Internet content, Cable & Wireless Optus is seizing the moral high ground by distributing content-blocking software free to Internet customers.
Free copies of the filtering program Net Nanny are being shipped to new customers of the telco's ISP arm, Optus Multimedia.
The software is being sent to customers who sign up on any Optus Internet plan, said Optus Multimedia marketing manager Paul Whitehead.
In operation for six months, Optus' ISP service has attracted 50,000 subscribers with the family and small business sectors emerging as the two fastest-growing segments of the market, he said.
Optus began shipping the content-blocking software this month and customers can voluntarily elect to use it. Any installation automatically generates an email which triggers a royalty payment from Optus to Net Nanny Software. The system, devised by Australian distributor Manaccom, means ISP customers don't see any upfront fee for using Net Nanny.
Whitehead said the filtering software is being distributed "to provide a comfort factor for parents".
He declined to speculate on how much of a censorship role Optus is prepared to adopt for material flowing through its Internet service.
"C&W Optus prides itself on our ethical standards and will do all we can to align ourselves (with moves to control unacceptable content). But we can only go so far in terms of what we can do in the market."
State attorneys-general recently endorsed commonwealth plans to legislate control of illegal or offensive material published or transmitted through the Internet.
But the Internet Industry Association (IIA) is concerned the government's efforts to control content will lead to slower Internet traffic. "We are comfortable with the proposals as applied domestically because they are totally in accord with our codes of practice," said IIA executive director Peter Coroneous.
"But with regard to ISP's blocking content originating from overseas, we see strong technical and commercial reasons why it is not workable.
"If we are talking about mandatory filtering, it will slow down the Internet which has implications for more than just the ISP community."
Government regulation may also make many content providers think twice about hosting their material in Australia rather than in the US where they would enjoy constitutional protection for free speech, he suggested.
The industry's code of practice already provides for IIA members to take down illegal material hosted in Australia, Coroneous said.
"We are not at war with the govenment on this. The main issue for the moment is the question of network performance."
The question of Internet regulation now sits on the top shelf of troublesome issues facing the ISP community, according to Coroneous. It joins concerns about the increasing volume of Internet credit card fraud, including use of remote administration tools such as the Back Orifice virus to steal password files.
A third issue is the continuing high cost of bandwidth which in turn is linked to shortcomings in interconnect agreements with US telcos.
The fourth critical issue is Australia's telecomms market structure which allows Telstra to operate both as a major supplier to ISPs and their major competitor.