Net Filtering in Oz?

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What does the Australian Government’s proposed ISP filtering ‘Clean Feed’ actually mean?

What it is, What it is.
The Federal Government is planning to force all Australian servers to filter internet traffic and block any material the Government deems ‘inappropriate’. Just to make it clear – this would be a compulsory filter maintained at every ISP in the country, whereby a secret list of sites chosen by the Government would be blocked. A trial of this technology will start on Dec 24, which aims to prove that “ISP-level filtering is a viable way to stop ‘unwanted content’ from reaching users”. Why? Is this a smart solution? Would it even work? Let’s have a look.

What does it Hope to Solve?
Saving the children, one would presume. And to prevent any illegal sites from being viewed in Australia – by adults or children.

Why will it fail?
An ISP level filter will not, by itself, save the children. As pointed out by Electronic Frontiers Australia, a national non-profit organisation concerned with on-line freedoms and rights, the threats to children online are many – identity theft, chats with strangers, cyber bullying, and none of which come with any easy technological solution. The filter could potentially even cause more harm to children, if it gives any parents an illusion of safety for their children online, and allows them to neglect the proper advice, supervision and education they should be giving their children.

The proposed filtering will also fail to prevent illegal sites from being viewed by whoever really wants to see them. Plenty of users today already get their internet using a process called ‘tunnelling’ or through the set-up of virtual private networks, which allow them to securely and privately use the internet whichever way they want.

Aside from access to illegal sites, the proposed filtering will also fail to cover any peer to peer based sharing of files.

What new problems will it cause?

Yes, it’s a simple analogy, but by imagining if Australia Post had to open and check every letter before delivering it, it is easy to grasp that the process of filtering adds a significant burden to each ISP. This burden will be passed onto net users with increased costs and decreased speed. Some estimates claim it will slow down Australia’s internet access by 10-30%. This after Australia’s broadband speeds and availabilities already lag well behind other countries.

“The only countries that really do have a widespread technological filtering or censorship regime are China, Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Colin Jacobs from Electronic Frontiers Australia, “In countries like that, where free speech is a real issue, slowing down the internet is a secondary concern to blocking access to undesirable material”.

The filter will inevitably contain false positives, unfairly blocking legitimate sites to all Australians. A rate of 10,000 false blockings per million webpages is apparently typical. Maintaining a list of sites, given the rates of web growth, and reinstating falsely blocked sites will be an enormous job for any government organisation.

Aside from these false positives, remains the larger question of who should decide what is viewable. The proposal suggests the Australian Communications and Media Authority should decide, that they should be allowed to add whatever sites they want, to an unpublished, secret list of sites that would then be blocked to all of Australia. Will they include sites about sexual health and drug use? Discussion sites about euthanasia or anorexia? Breastfeeding sites? What about sites with creative interpretations of copyright? Provocative fiction? Provocative journalism? Where is the line drawn?

What can You do About it?
With widespread dissatisfaction and annoyance being shown from ISP owners, communications experts and the general public towards the proposed filter, campaigns against it’s introduction have been growing strong. See below for ways to get involved.

Electronic Frontiers Australia – and
twitter users: Use the #nocleanfeed tag to voice your opinion and follow @efa_oz for updates on the No Clean Feed campaign.
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