ISP-level content filtering won't work

ISP-level content filtering won't work

Summary: Federal Government plans to introduce ISP-level filtering to provide a 'safer' internet experience for Australian families are likely to be met with significant resistance from within the ISP community.

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TOPICS: Telcos, Telstra
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video feature Federal Government plans to introduce ISP-level filtering to provide a 'safer' internet experience for Australian families are likely to be met with significant resistance from within the ISP community.

The leaders of three of Australia's largest internet service providers — Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett have, in video interviews with ZDNet.com.au over the past few months detailed technical, legal and ethical reasons why ISP-level filtering won't work.

Hackett, managing director of Adelaide-based ISP Internode, feels it is "somewhat loony" to make censorship the role of the ISP. "The reality is that we are just a gatekeeper," he said. "But we don't own the content, we only own the doorway."

A technical challenge
Hackett says that from a technical standpoint, introducing filtering is expensive, performance-degrading and annoying; "a complete bugger". Filtering technology, he says, is the "antithesis to the notion that we all want to go faster" on the internet. "This stuff will actually make things go slower," he says. "The tendency is to go towards a simple solution that actually overshoots, that has too many false negatives."

The tendency is to go towards a simple solution that actually overshoots, that has too many false negatives.

Justin Milne, Telstra Media

"Anything you are going to put in the end-to-end data path that actually does blocking can be invasive. It's invasive meaning it is expensive [to implement], and invasive in the sense that installing it in our network is complicated and may in fact cause outages."

"If the stuff goes a bit wrong it will start blocking other content. The trouble is, the internet's not just web browsers. Other applications that are using the internet may get mistaken for things that are pulling that content and might get blocked or messed with in strange ways."

Hackett expects the government to mandate a blacklist of IP addresses that by law an ISP is not permitted to serve to a customer. "Two problems with that — one is collateral damage, what if that IP address is a virtual host with 2000 web sites on it and only one of them doesn't follow the government's morality?" he says. "The other [problem] is, what if it's done by mistake? [What] if the IP address is just straight out wrong?"

"Another obvious [problem] is that the internet is full of anonymous proxies. None of this stuff actually works."

A legal challenge
Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, says any decision that forces ISPs into a 'gatekeeping' role would have significant legal implications.

"The idea that ISPs could somehow or other filter the tnternet is one, technically impossible and two, a bad idea anyway," he says. "If you want to filter the bad guys out of the 'net, quite apart from the fact that technically you can't do it, you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation, to make that properly carried out, to make it stand up."

"Various successive governments have seized upon ISPs as being a convenient choke point or gatekeeper point on the 'net. They would love for ISPs to become judge, jury, policeman, posse, hangman, the whole deal. And I think it's a very inappropriate thing to do."

Milne says it should be the police, mandated by the law, that handle such issues, not ISPs. "ISPs all need to comply with the law, just as hotels or delicatessens or anybody who conducts commerce needs to comply with the law. [But] you don't want them inventing the law and you don't want them having to interpret the law. You want the guys who make the law to do that. Police need to be police."

Milne says Australia "probably doesn't have enough cyber-police" and is "probably not as good as we need to be at catching bad guys that use the 'net." Similarly, he feels Australia is 'underdone' in terms of laws that apply to the internet world.

But that said, he doesn't think it should be the role of the ISP to regulate internet use. "The idea of having some sort of fairly loose regulations and saying to ISPs, look, you have the capacity to do X, Y or Z and we'd like you to do that is crazy," he says. "If we start doing things like cutting people off on the basis of doing file-sharing, for example, we could finish up breaking laws. We could certainly lend ourselves liable to being sued for wrongfully cutting people off."

Milne says those parties in society that want ISP's to act as gatekeepers need first to have their plans mandated by courts. "The music industry would love to say, lets get the ISPs to catch all the people who are file sharing, write them a letter, and if they don't stop file sharing, cut them off," he says. "Well, we could do that, if there were a law [against file sharing]. But the music industry needs to get the law in place, and go through the whole process, and through the forensic examination society will undertake as to whether it's a good or bad idea."

"You need frameworks for these things. BigPond of course complies with all laws and if law enforcement agencies come to us with a warrant or a document which says I've been to court, and the court has decided that we've got reasonable grounds to believe this guy is a terrorist, for example, or a pedlar of child pornography or whatever it might be, and we want you to help us catch him, then we say, certainly sir, not a problem at all. We comply with the law, and we are protected by the law. Due process has happened."

Ethical opposition
Michael Malone, CEO of iiNet says even aside from the technical and legal problems associated with ISP-level filtering, "there is also the whole ethical position of how appropriate is it for the Australian Government to start acting like the Chinese Government."

There is also the whole ethical position of how appropriate is it for the Australian Government to start acting like the Chinese Government

Michael Malone, CEO of iiNet

"The question is how far the Government wants to go with [ISP-level filtering]," Malone says. The creation of a small blacklist or RC (refused classification) content, he suggests, might actually work, as filtering through a small list of IP addresses or URL's is viable.

"[But] taking that though to a comprehensive list that tries to make the internet 'safe'? I think there's two big problems with it. The definition of safe for a six-year-old is very different from that for a fifteen-year-old. The other [problem] is it's a very subjective assessment."

"If the Federal Government says we are going to stop certain sorts of objectionable content, what on earth is the definition of bad here?" asks Hackett. "Is it the Federal Government's definition of bad? Is this going to be a white Anglo-Saxon protestant filtering system? Is it going to be a Muslim filtering system? Is it going to be one that doesn't like Scientology? The problem is we live in a world with multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid."

"For some parents, they may consider information about homosexuality to be a real problem," says Malone. "But for some other parents they might consider that to be entirely appropriate. Nudity in art may be appropriate for one set of parents, not for another. Those things are household decisions."

A household decision
Both Hackett and Malone argue that such decisions do indeed belong in the home and not at the level of the utility. Hackett says there is no strong evidence that Australian families want filtering systems. "They want a sense that the internet is not as scarier place for their kids to be," he said. "But that's a question of solving it in other ways. Solving it with education, solving it with the pragmatic thing that we certainly do at home, we stick the kids' computer in the living room."

"Our position has always been, parents should have the ability to filter at their end," says Malone. "Client-end filtering works reasonably well, still doesn't provide you with an entirely safe environment, but at least it means the parent has some control over what the child is viewing. Try to do that at the ISP [level], and you're asking us to make decisions for the entire country."

A white-list at the client-end is the simplest, cheapest and most effective solution, Hackett says. Families give their children a white-listed version of the Internet, and add new sites and applications by exception upon their child's request.

"Apple already does a good job of this in Leopard — its got a nice system whereby if you go to a web site that's not there [on the white list], the parents will log-in, authenticate and add that site on demand. And just incrementally keep adding until they stop asking. That stuff works — and again you notice that's a client-side decision, that's not a network side decision."

You're asking us to make decisions for the entire country.

Simon Hackett, Internode

The thin edge of the wedge?
Malone is concerned both of the last two Federal Government's posturing on 'making the internet safe' might be the first step in a path towards censorship.

"I do worry that this is the thin edge of the wedge," he said. "That the Government will come in with a small list of sites for the ISP to block, and that just includes the real stuff that everyone agrees on like child porn and bestiality. So we say, OK we are willing to comply with that. But it becomes an area then that can be used for so much more. So you might see the next step is an attempt to block out XXX sites or hate speech sites, and you think, OK maybe we can live with that [too]."

"But then after that it could be to block out competing political positions or to block out sites about religion or sexual orientation that the Government says is no longer suitable for children in Australia."

Topics: Telcos, Telstra

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74 comments
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  • WHAT

    "...and that just includes the real stuff that everyone agrees on like child porn and bestiality"

    But... I like viewing bestiality!!! And I should be ALLOWED to view it. I'm an adult for crying out loud.
    anonymous
  • Great Video

    Very good to see the point of view from ISPs and their explanations on why it why work. The absurd statements that Senator Conroy has making about the proposed system simply won't work. Listen to people actually in the industry Mr. Conroy!

    The laboratory conditioned tests they conducted were an utter failure and are certainly not suitable for mandatory filtering by any means. I would hate to see how a real world scenario would fare because obviously there is a lot more that the filters will have to handle.

    The technical issues alone should throw this policy out the door. The concept is completely flawed because it goes against everything that it's trying to achieve and will not be practical at all.

    Education, home filters and responsible parenting will be astronomically more effective. Don't cripple Australia's internet and waste the taxpayer's money on a system that absolutely will not work.
    anonymous
  • Absolutely no way!

    What is with the Australian government and it's obsession with Internet censorship? I've never spoken with anyone who has said anything remotely like "What this country needs is filtering and censorship of Internet content". The vast majority of us are very happy with the status quo, thanks. The Libs danced around this issue but we're savvy enough not to actually try it. Labor is courting potential political disaster with this one.
    anonymous
  • That's the essense of it...

    Yes, but Steve Fielding doesn't like sex of any kind, at least not publicly, and he has a deciding vote. They want to sacrifice you and all the rest of us for him.
    anonymous
  • the existing RC category is way too broad

    Pretty much all hate speech is protected by US First Amendment, along with
    "instruction in crime".

    Even with child pornography there's no consensus internationally. Australia draws the line at 18, for example, where most of Europe draws the line at 16, and computer generated child pornography is legal in the US but not in Australia.

    And many computer games legally sold all over the world have been Refused Classification in Australia.

    And any "unacceptable fetishes" will get a film rated RC.

    Are we going to block 10000 sites on one IP address because one of them contains a salacious photo of a 17 year old? Or a copy of "The Art of Shoplifting"? Or a copy of Grand Theft Auto? Or euthanasia advice? All these things are or could be Refused Classification in Australia.

    So I don't think a small IP blacklist of Refused Classification material is an acceptable compromise. The RC category is a lot broader than most people think.
    anonymous
  • Well done on undermining my confidence in leadership.

    I'm not the sharpest of folks but it was obvious to me that such a filter would simply not be technically feasible.

    The fact that the government continues to attempt to forge ahead despite what must have been repeated warnings has severely shaken my confidence - what an incredible amount of hubris and utter lack of competence they must have had to think this possible. For me, their fitness to lead has been severely called into question - if they can drop the ball on something so simple, what are they doing on more complex issues?
    anonymous
  • HA HA PROMISES

    So what happened to Rudd's commitment to improving Australia's internet infrastructure? Weren't there promises to help introduce fibre optic connection as a standard? If the Labor government really wants to bring Australia's internet up to the same international standard as Europe, America etc then why do they let this minority rule how the majority utilises it? I'd like to see this 'democracy' introduce a little more democratic proceedings on sensitive issues like this rather than letting an aging political group make decisions regarding a relatively new technology. Same deal goes for video games and the absurd lack of an R18+ rating... at the risk of blowing whatever credibility I managed to build up, I'll add: "goddamn old fogies".

    Also kudos to those ISP figureheads for standing up for our rights (even though they're protecting their own interests just as much as ours).
    anonymous
  • Filtering would work under one circumstance

    Filtering would only work if China's example is followed and you blacklist everything then only open the door for sites you want people to be able to access.

    That is not something that I've seen mentioned yet, but the way things are going it might end up being placed as an option on the table. After all, we need to protect the children, right.
    anonymous
  • No, cause even that's stupid

    - It won't actually filter everything anyway - P2P will go through, proxied data still goes, and encryption still goes.
    SSH, webmail, etc.

    It's a stupid idea, and should be stopped immediately - it's already wasted the time of the hopeless government, the time of the media (like they had better crap to report on anyway), and the time of the users / professionals thus far who have provided the factual counter argument against filtering going ahead.

    Can it now, before more resources are pissed away.
    anonymous
  • Family first and APRA in bed?

    Well of course, P2P will have to go. And any FTP. And of course a blanket ban on file farms like Rapidshare. IM will have to be reduced to text en clair. All of course in the name of saving the children!

    Anyone who opposes this must be a sick pedo that should be castrated. Because of course this is all only about saving the children, there are no ulterior motives from the fundamentalist christian who holds the balance of power.
    anonymous
  • Australia's credibility down the toilet

    Internet filtering like China, Iran and Thailand.. and we all know how that has helped there.
    Like the Chinese govt is using it to block sites exposing the milk poisoning, how long before political opponents get blocked.
    anonymous
  • Excellent Article

    Very well written. I'm not Australian myself, but I completely agree that the government shouldn't be the ones controlling the internet in their country.
    anonymous
  • Burn the books. Adolf Hitler. 1938.

    Our liberty depends on the freedom of the Press (Internet) which cannot be limited without being lost. Acknowledgement to whoever said that first.
    anonymous
  • Why Mums don't want mandatory filters

    If I was Anonymous' mum, I would want to know what he was, erm, into. If Anonymous is using the internet, he can safely show me, without me having to physically meet his 'friends'.

    Anonymous will still be curious about 'diverse relationships' even if he only hears about them in other ways. I guess having outrageous conversations on the internet is better for society than having them f2f.

    The same goes for anorexia, euthanasia, hacking, terrorism...
    anonymous
  • Easier to dodge than track

    One point being missed is that if the filter hooks onto an IP address, it is easier to simply change hosts and therefore the IP address than it is for the ISP to realise the change has occured and alter the list of filtered sites. The DNS insulates the user from this change.

    Anyway, who is going to be surfing the net to look for these sites? Are taxpayers going to be paying a bunch of public servants to constantly check out porn sites looking for photos of children?

    Mr Conroy, the reason this will be a total failure is that the people who provide and view the stuff you are targetting know a hell of a lot more about the Internet than you do.
    anonymous
  • The REAL reason for this is to prevent people from getting access to FACTS

    This is great news for the fatcats (elite), as they do not like people to get too smart!

    These entities take delight of what the masses get to see, read & hear!

    Now with the last remaining free outlet soon to be no more, they are finally able to manipulate people more so than ever before…
    anonymous
  • exactly!

    "Mr Conroy, the reason this will be a total failure is that the people who provide and view the stuff you are targetting know a hell of a lot more about the Internet than you do."

    Exactly! There has and always will be, ways round any kind of content censorship the government tries. Even in China it's easy to get round.

    People who want to look at child pornography will find a way. People that want to look at animal porn will find a way.

    The governments total lack of understanding of this matter shows. And people who are tech savvy and/or work in the IT industry are laughing at this whole 'trying to censor the internet' issue.
    anonymous
  • Conroy is the reincarnation of Hitler

    "The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation." -Adolf Hitler
    anonymous
  • Re;That's the essense of it...

    "Steve Fielding doesn't like sex of any kind,"

    A pity his parents did not have the same attitude.
    anonymous
  • isp filteriing

    I just hope Conroy has the balls to admit that this is unworkable .
    anonymous