Yesterday's report from the Australian Computer Society's Filtering and E-Security Task Force will be a handy weapon in Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy's battle over internet censorship.
Here's Conroy's dilemma — and none of this will be changed by
the forthcoming results of internet filtering trials, whatever
those results are. This is a political issue, not a technical
Labor came into government with a plan for cyber-safety (PDF) that included "a mandatory 'clean feed' internet service for all
homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian
That policy is widely believed to be the result of a deal with
Family First's Senator Steve Fielding.
I'm sure no-one imagined it'd be the least bit
However that plan was thrown together in the last few weeks
before the November 2007 election, well after the rest of Labor's
policies had been published. It shows. Proposed extensions to the
ACMA blacklist are described as being about "harmful" and
"inappropriate" material, terms with no legal definition. It's not
clear whether ISPs must simply "offer" the so-called "clean feed",
or whether it'd be mandatory.
Both the Greens and the Opposition are against the policy. So, on the one hand, Conroy must presumably persist with
mandatory filtering to prevent losing Fielding's all-important
Senate vote. But on the other hand, the policy is unpopular and
risks turning some Labor voters to The Greens.
This is where the ACS report can help.
Coming from the IT industry's guardian of ethics and
professional standards, and written by well-qualified experts, the
report is a perfect fit for the government's need to be seen to be
conducting "evidence-based policy".
Yet it contains plenty of politics-friendly sound bites that
could be spun in either direction — to kill mandatory filtering,
or kill the criticism — whatever most helps the opinion polls and
Senate vote-trading at the time.
"The Task Force recognises there is no silver bullet when it
comes to cyber security and solutions to providing a safer and more
secure internet. Addressing this challenge will require an ongoing,
multi-faceted approach," says the ACS report.
"Silver bullet"? Where have we heard that before?
"There is no silver bullet solution to cyber-safety concerns and
that is why the government has a broad-ranging $125.8 million
cyber-safety program," a spokesperson for Conroy's office told
ZDNet.com.au yesterday, repeating the Senator's now-familiar
While the ACS sent Conroy's office a courtesy copy of their
report around three weeks ago, Task Force spokesperson Prof Vijay
Varadharajan denies collusion. The ACS has "always been in
discussions with the department from time to time," he told
ZDNet.com.au, but "silver bullet", like "weakest link", is "a
common phrase in the security field".
"It's a standard part of the game," Varadharajan said.
Should Conroy need to kill the filter, the ACS report points out
all the known problems. Filters can't effectively block encrypted
or P2P data without also blocking legitimate traffic. Filters are
easy to bypass. A human-maintained blacklist can't keep up with the
dynamic internet, where every user is a potential content producer.
Filters will always make mistakes, through both over-blocking and
"Even with the best ISP level and PC based security systems and
education programs in place, it is unrealistic to expect that all
illegal material will be caught. A set and forget solution simply
does not exist and filters do not replace adequate parental
supervision," the report says.
Part of Conroy's political problem has been a lack of clarity over the scope of mandatory filtering and a continual subtle shift in wording
Part of Conroy's political problem has been a lack of clarity
over the scope of mandatory filtering and a continual subtle shift
in wording — from the vague "unwanted" material, to the ACMA
blacklist of around 2000 URLs, to just the Refused Classification
portion of the blacklist, which is about half that.
Conroy denies it, but the change has been meticulously
by Irene Graham. She's described it as "policy on the run and
quarter-baked at best", although another reading is that it's just
a politician's usual reluctance to be pinned down on specifics.
As the ACS puts it, "While recent government statements indicate
that ISP-level filtering will apply to RC material that is on the
ACMA blacklist, there is still a considerable amount of confusion
amongst the ICT sector on exactly what content will be
For the record, Conroy's office now says, and have said for some
months: "The government is examining the introduction of mandatory
ISP level filtering for RC (Refused Classification) material as
identified under the National Classification Scheme. RC material
includes child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence,
detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material
that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. The government is also
considering optional ISP content filtering products for other
material for those families who wish to have such a service."
Given that reduced scope — and there are indications that the
government recognises a filter's limitations and will only attempt
to block inadvertent viewing of RC material — the ACS report
supports that path too.
"While ISP filtering techniques can be useful in helping to
reduce inadvertent exposure to child pornography or other illegal
material, filtering alone is unlikely to solve the underlying
problem or significantly impact those who deliberately produce,
distribute or go in search of this material," it says.
According to Conroy's spokesperson, "the ISP filtering trial
report is being finalised and will be provided to the minister
shortly. It will be released publicly in due course."
during a curious exchange with Triple J's Kate O'Toole (MP3 file), Conroy
confirmed the trials have no stated success criteria.
So when the report is released "in due course", Conroy can
cherry-pick numbers, and cherry-pick quotes from the ACS, to
justify whichever path he chooses. Or, he can take on board the ACS
suggestions to further clarify the policy, delay everything until
the next election, and hope Fielding gets voted out.
"We are eagerly waiting to see what the [filter] report is going
to say," says Varadharajan. As we all are, Professor. But more
interesting will be Conroy's response. In due course.