ISP porn filters now ready for testing

Summary:Expressions of interest close today for vendors hoping to secure a contract with the federal government and ACMA to provide an ISP-level filtering program, as part of a government effort to limit access to restricted and illegal online content.

Expressions of interest close today for vendors hoping to secure a contract with the federal government and ACMA to provide an ISP-level filtering program, as part of a government effort to limit access to restricted and illegal online content.

Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which will be commissioning tests of the filters, revealed today that Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, is expecting its testing and review of content filtering software to be complete by the middle of the year.

"We've been asked by the Minister to report back around 30 June -- the Department will be expecting results and a full analysis by that stage," said Vince Humphries, manager of education and telephone content at ACMA.

"The filtering trial is really to give the government an idea of what the state-of-the-art for this type of software is," he said.

Humphries said a similar trial had been conducted in 2005 for the Howard government, and its results found that many of the filtering products were enterprise programs scaled up to work at ISP level.

"There's a question there about maturity but I think things are going to be different this time round," said Humphries, adding that the regulator and the government are now most interested to see if there are products capable of filtering "non-static" Web content -- such as BitTorrent file sharing networks, instant messaging, and social networking sites -- effectively.

According to Humphries, the trial will focus on how well the software is able to identify and filter "illegal and restricted content" originating from these sources as well as from conventional Web pages. When asked by ZDNet.com.au today whether the definition of "illegal" would extend to copyright infringing material, Humphries said the government was not looking to catch those engaging in illegal downloads.

"To the extent that we're trying to find filters that can monitor file sharing programs, we're only targeting content that has been refused classification and is illegal by that term in Australia," he said.

"The nuances around these technologies are important for the vendors to consider: we already know that some are sophisticated enough to locate certain keywords in a chat session and enable the filter, while others will simply block the application altogether," said Humphries.

The ISP filtering trial follows ACMA's move to restrict children's access to inappropriate content online, spearheaded by new age verification regulatory framework put in place by the authority last month.

Humphries described the two projects as "part of the same overall approach to the protection of children online, I'd say they're two limbs of the same body".

While the recent amendments to age verification regulation cover streaming mobile phone content, it is not expected that the filtering trial will be extended to mobile browsing or premium mobile content services.

"It's got nothing to do with mobiles at the moment, it may be an area that ACMA and the government are interested in, but at this stage there's some question marks hanging over the maturity of the technology and the ability to filter it," said Humphries.

"We've been talking about this as a policy direction and promoting the use of ISP filtering since 2004, so we welcome the move," said Australian Family Association (AFA) national research officer, Angela Conway, who added the organisation had lobbied the government to undertake similar trials last year and was "frustrated to see them fall through".

"We're only at the beginning of this," said Conway. "In terms of Web 2.0 we're not naïve about how it's ballooned and the risks it can pose to children online."

The AFA representative said it was "unfair" for it to fall completely to parents to monitor what their children can see on the Internet, and described the Web as being "literally clogged up with pornography traffic".

ACMA's Humphries told ZDNet.com.au today that the trials would begin in a closed environment run by Melbourne's Enex Testlab, ahead of potential field trials later in the year.

An Enex Testlab spokesperson said the organisation was unable to comment on the project.

Topics: Government, Broadband, Browser, Censorship, Government : AU, Telcos

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