Which filter side is Optus playing for?

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, Telcos, Optus, NBN


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Optus - Filtering

    I think its fairly safe to say that Optus is trying to ingratiate itself with the Federal government. Yes-Facism.

    I for one will be cancelling my Optus services when the contract terms expire soon.
  • Done with Optus

    Very disappointed with Optus for wanting to take part in the trial.

    Once my contract with Optus expires I'll be switching to another ISP.
  • Facism?

    David suggested the reason Optus may have decided to become involved is just to it's Singapore links but don't you think that calling the company Facist is going a little bit too far?

    I don't think anyone here would call Singapore a Facist country, and I don't think anyone would think that Optus is trying to push Australia in that direction either. That is by and large even more BS then the notion that Optus supporters murder because Singapore has capital punishment.
  • I'm a bit undecided

    This is a really hard one to pick, on one hand it's good that there is a large ISP involved that can provide a large number of users in the feedback over a large area (I mean how many people weren't annoyed the trial was just a handful of small ISPs), but on the other hand we don't know the type of feedback and details that will be obtained for the trial purposes.

    I think it's fair to say that Optus would have a large userbase of families due to their plan sets, is having that going to skew the results in the direction of "family friendly"?
  • ??

    Quoting the front page of the Whirlpool website which is quoting the Optus website ..

    "Willingness to participate in the trial does not necessarily indicate support of mandatory filtering", said Optus on its website. "Optus would rather be a �part of the conversation� than not be involved if the Govt decided to mandate filtering".

    I'd have to agree in that case that Optus has taken the best option, it's far better to be an active participant in the trials and be able to converse first hand with the government then sit on the sidelines waving your protest flag and watching it happen.

    Oddly enough that's probably why Telstra has become involved too, even though Telstra aren't using end customers they are testing internally, so along with Optus they're another company which has realised it's better to be involved then watch.
  • Damned if they do, Damned if they dont.

    Indulging Conroy's little pet projects is a great way to have the federal government bank roll development in differentiated services using DPI.

    If Conroy gets his legislation then Optus will have to apply the filtering anyway, so why not let them easy the financial burden?
  • Bury your head in the ground

    Yes, Singapore has an authoritarian government! I know 'cos I was once a Singaporean.

    Everything is monitored there....
  • Optus and Singapore

    Normally I would back Optus on the basis that they are ABT (anybody but Telstra).

    But a recent conversation with a Singapore comms official has made me very wary. The official told me proudly that "in Singapore, we censor the Internet full time to ensure that there is nothing embarrassing, and there are heavy penalties for any breaches." So no criticism allowed of the notoriously touchy Singapore government, then.

    No wonder Conjob is so keen on imposing The Filter on all of us.