Which filter side is Optus playing for?

Summary:Optus' involvement in the controversial government blacklist project could fall on either side of the fence. In kissing the ring, is Optus conceding that censorship is inevitable — or hatching a scheme to discredit Conroy's folly from within?

In the world of business, principles and money don't always go hand in hand.

Some principled companies — Starbucks or The Body Shop, for example — make good money. Others, like Apple, make their money first and then worry about principles once they can afford to, or have to. Yet as the country's second-largest ISP joins the government's ill-conceived blacklist-based web filter, one can only hope that its intentions are good.

There could perhaps be no better company to be involved in web filtering than Optus which, with its roots firmly planted in censorship-happy Singapore, certainly has the pedigree and resources to act authoritatively on the topic.

We've seen several examples of the uneasy relationship between principles and business opportunism within Australia's ISP community in recent months. For example, I recently took Internode to task for its simultaneous pro-Terria public stance and private negotiations with Telstra in the lead-up to last November's NBN bid. And I still wonder how Telstra expects to win customer loyalty by selling services based on idealistic and deceptive speed claims rather than competitive broadband plans.

In the battle of ISP principles, the king right now is arguably iiNet, which is fighting the good fight against AFACT in a legal case that will inform the global battle over ISPs' rights and obligations to their customers. iiNet also recently funded a freedom of information request — which was unceremoniously knocked back by the government — to deliver sorely-lacking transparency around the cancelled NBN tender.

The extent to which iiNet has become a standard-bearer for ISPs' principles became clear when even arch-rival Telstra backed iiNet's legal fight against AFACT. iiNet may have started its fight against AFACT with a slingshot, but there is no better friend to have than Telstra when you need lawyers, guns and money. So to speak.

iiNet's principles were once again evident when iiNet pulled out of discussions to join the filter trial, which it said from the start it intended to join simply to prove the filter untenable. With the lack of a large ISP tainting the trial process (remember that Telstra passed on the opportunity to participate and was publicly slamming ISP filtering nine years ago), Conroy needed a turncoat to champion his near universally criticised cause. It has now, apparently, found its turncoat in Optus.

There could perhaps be no better company to be involved in web filtering than Optus which, with its roots firmly planted in censorship-happy Singapore, certainly has the pedigree and resources to act authoritatively on the topic.

Optus, with a massive base of internet users, is now a feather in the cap for Conroy, who faced a barrage of criticism over the diminutive size of trial participants. Successful technical trials will lend credence to Conroy's unpopular filtering regime, discrediting opponents who oppose the filter on technical and pragmatic grounds.

Yet while Conroy crows over Optus' participation as a way to "ensure the government obtains robust results from the pilot", one wonders where Optus' true allegiance lies.

Is the company picking up where iiNet left off — infiltrating the other side in an effort to discredit the filter from the inside? Does it have nefarious plans to sabotage the process in retribution for Conroy's double rebuff (in the cases of the cancelled Opel contract and Optus' once widely-favoured NBN bid)?

Or is it acting out of pragmatism, having simply accepted that the filter will become reality and decided it's better to be involved with shaping policy than having policy imposed on it?

Then there's the more worrying possibility that Optus has made some risk-versus-reward decisions and decided that helping Conroy with his pet project will give it the upper hand in coming negotiations over ISPs' roles in the evolving NBN. Optus, after all, was among the first to come out in support of the new NBN plan — a surprising turn of events given the millions it invested and lost in engineering its own NBN bid.

Did [Optus] see kissing the ring — and selling out the anti-filtering cause — as the necessary price to pay in exchange for getting a leg up in the NBN?

Could that enthusiasm have been fuelled by a tit-for-tat deal from a minister who badly needed Optus' participation to keep his filter plan alive? Did the company see kissing the ring — and selling out the anti-filtering cause — as the necessary price to pay in exchange for getting a leg up in the NBN? What concessions, exactly, did Optus negotiate out of a minister who previously decried many ISPs' proposals as "cheap" shots at government-subsidised network upgrades?

That, of course, was before the NBN announcement; now, all ISPs stand to benefit from government-subsidised network upgrades. And whether Optus is playing double-agent, or has simply become an agent of Conroy's plan to filter Australia's internet, will become clearer over time.

For now, suffice it to say that Australia's second-largest ISP is playing a dangerous game that could just as easily land it in the ranks of the principled as in the ranks of the opportunistic.

Topics: Censorship, Broadband, Government : AU, Legal, NBN, Optus, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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