ISP-level porn filters a bad idea

commentary When the precursor to the Internet surfaced back in 1972 it's doubtful many people realised one of the main eventual uses of the technology would be to distribute massive amounts of pornography. The academic research networks that existed at that stage barely had enough bandwidth to service universities and defence agencies.

commentary When the precursor to the Internet surfaced back in 1972 it's doubtful many people realised one of the main eventual uses of the technology would be to distribute massive amounts of pornography.

Renai LeMay, ZDNet Australia
The academic research networks that existed at that stage barely had enough bandwidth to service universities and defence agencies.

Fast-forward to 2006. To today's Internet community, downloading Paris Hilton's sex tape is almost as easy as falling out of bed.

The reality of this situation was always going to force any self-respecting Western government into action, as parents concerned about their children's Internet access made themselves heard.

In Australia the debate has in recent times centred on whether Internet service providers (ISPs) should filter content before it reaches the household or business level in the network.

While Tasmania is currently trialling the technology and support has come from both sides of the political spectrum, wiser heads have already dismissed the idea.

And rightly so.

As Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan pointed out in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra today, pornography cannot be effectively filtered at the ISP level.

"The government has looked at the efficacy of ISP-level filtering three times ... Each report has found significant problems with content filter products operating at the ISP-level," said Coonan.

She took particular offence with the "Clean Feed" filtering solution being used in the United Kingdom. "Clean Feed is anything but clean -- it does not block all pornography or other offensive sites and does not make the Internet safe," said Coonan.

The Minister's comments echo those of the local Internet industry, which has been at pains to point out ISP-level filtering simply doesn't work.

In a recent opinionated article, the managing director of one of the nation's largest ISPs, Netspace's Stuart Marburg, argued ISP-level filtering was not an effective solution.

"Clean feed systems are not the silver bullet for fighting pornography ... these systems are not 100 percent bullet-proof and effectively just filter out 40 percent of the 'known' porn problem," Marburg wrote.

But that's not all ... not only does the system not work all that well, it even slows down the Internet and is a financial burden that could drive down competition.

"Australia's Internet safety advisory body, NetAlert's recent study into the effect content filters had on network performance showed that Internet speeds would be reduced by 18 percent for the best performing filter and up to 78 percent for the worst," wrote Marburg.

"Building filters into ISP's Internet services will add significant financial burden on the ISP," he continued.

"With most ISPs already suffering greater competitive pressures and uncertainty as a result of margin squeeze on broadband products, this initiative may well be the final nail in the coffin for a number of smaller providers."

So if ISP-level filtering is a bad idea ... just how can concerned parents protect their young? The best idea, it seems, is for them to take out the trash themselves.

"A PC-based filter does more than simply protect children on the Web, it gives parents much more effective control over all aspects of their children's activity online," said Coonan.

"Filtering content at the desktop ... will have a better success rate to stop porn being accessed by children without impacting the genuine rights of the entire population," wrote Netspace's Marburg.

"Parents also need to become more accountable for their child's online safety and educate their children so that they become more responsible and aware of the well-publicised public dangers."

In other words, nothing new. Pay attention to your kids and install some basic (and freely available) protection software on your PC.

What do you think is the best way of filtering out adult content on the Internet? Drop me a line directly at renai.lemay@zdnet.com.au.

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