The nation's largest telco, Telstra, today revealed it was close to achieving executive sign-off for an internal proposal outlining the technical details of how it intends to filter its customers' access to a list of websites containing child pornography.
The limited voluntary filtering initiative is a measure that internet service providers (ISPs) and the Federal Government agreed to in mid-2010. The initiative — which Optus and Primus are also planning to implement — was intended to operate while a review was carried out into the Refused Classification category of content, which the government's wider mandatory filter project is slated to block. The ISPs' filter will only block sites with child pornography instead of those with illegal content in general.
A report by The Australian newspaper overnight had suggested that Telstra was "wavering" in its support for the voluntary filter proposal. However, Telstra today said that the telco's commitment was "plainly stated" in its media release on the matter last year, and that "nothing has happened to alter that commitment".
In the original proposal, the ISPs were planning to block a list of sites supplied by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). However, it appears that has now changed, with Telstra stating it had sourced an alternate list.
"Telstra is working with the Australian Federal Police to disrupt the availability of child sexual abuse content in Australia," the company said. "We are currently considering blocking a list of illegal child sexual abuse sites identified as being the worst globally by international policing body, Interpol. The move would help protect child abuse victims from public identification and serve to protect customers from inadvertent access to this illegal content."
The Interpol list that Telstra is examining is believed to have been in use for a number of years, with telcos such as BT, O2 and Virgin blocking customers from viewing addresses on the list.
For a site to get onto the list, it is believed that law enforcement agencies in at least two separate jurisdictions have to validate the entry as illegal and not just objectionable. In addition, the age of children depicted on the sites must be younger than 13 years of age, or perceived to be less than 13.
Furthermore, there must be evidence of severe abuse in the content of the site and the domain must have been active within the past three months. The list is centrally maintained by Interpol itself rather than the Australian Federal Police, although the AFP has access to the list.
As the voluntary filtering regime comes closer to reality in Australia, with ISPs planning to implement the system over the next few months, online rights campaigners have again begun to raise their voices in opposition to the idea.
Yesterday, global digital rights lobby group, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), published a statement strongly opposing the voluntary filter, stating that the plan lacked transparency in how it selected which internet addresses would be blocked. The foundation also said that there was a lack of accountability from regulatory bodies creating the blacklists.
EFF director for international freedom of expression, Jillian C. York, added in her argument that filtering systems did little to curb the trade of child pornography in practice, with much of the objectionable material being trafficked across peer-to-peer and virtual private networks.
The wider mandatory filter policy does contain a number of mechanisms designed to address some of the concerns that York has raised. For example, the policy will feature an annual review of content on the "blacklist", avenues for appeal of classification decisions and the use of a standardised block page to be used by ISPs.
Yesterday afternoon, the Office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy issued a statement noting it was the government's aim that the accountability and transparency measures which could apply without the passing of legislation would be available to the ISPs to incorporate into their voluntary processes.
"We are still working through the details of the voluntary arrangements with the ISPs and details have not yet been finalised," it said.
It is not clear yet how Telstra's proposal to use an Interpol blacklist rather than one sourced from ACMA will affect the project as a whole.