ACS filter report just what Conroy needs

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

commentary Yesterday's report from the Australian Computer Society's Filtering and E-Security Task Force, the drab-named Technical Observations on ISP Based Filtering of the Internet, will be a handy weapon in Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy's battle over internet censorship.


(Credit: Stilgherrian.com)

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 one.

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 children".

That policy is widely believed to be the result of a deal with Family First's Senator Steve Fielding.

The policy is about the Australian Communication and Media Authority's (ACMA) "blacklist" of prohibited online content. It's about enforcing the existing censorship process through technical means. It's about protecting children.

I'm sure no-one imagined it'd be the least bit controversial.

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 catchphrase.

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 under-blocking.

"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 documented 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 filtered."

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."

In March, 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.

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