Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) today revealed what it said was evidence that Stephen Conroy's department was hosting a protected online forum to discuss controversial issues about the government's internet filter initiative, including the lack of a complete draft of the planned legislation as of several weeks ago and the possibility of making it an offence to promote methods of circumventing the filter.
Delimiter has sighted apparent screenshots from the forum possessed by the EFA. The digital rights advocacy group believes the site is being hosted internally by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE). In the screenshots, internet service providers (ISPs) such as Pacific Internet and Webshield — which will be required to implement the scheme if it goes ahead — discuss the filter with unnamed departmental officials.
The office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been contacted with a list of questions to respond to the information contained in the forum.
In December, Communications Minister Conroy had stated the filter legislation would hit Parliament by March, a time frame echoed by Labor Senator Kate Lundy in early February.
But in a posting on the forum which appeared to be dated 13 April, the department wrote that at that stage "there is no complete draft of the legislation", although the drafting process had commenced.
"One of the purposes of consulting with ISPs through this forum is to seek feedback on issues that will be covered in the legislation, which the department can then take into account in the drafting process," it added.
No decision had yet been taken on whether the government would publicly release an exposure draft of the filter legislation, as it has recently done with similar broadband legislation, the department wrote.
In essence, DBCDE added, the legislation will require ISPs to filter URLs on the Australian Communications and Media Authority's Refused Classification (RC) blacklist, without specifying exactly how they did it — "consistent with usual drafting practice and the desire to keep legislation as technologically neutral as possible".
Pro-choice euthanasia group Exit International and others such as IT reseller ProxyMate.net have already started promoting ways to get around the filter legislation, and Conroy's office has publicly stated it would not be an offence to bypass the filter. But DBCDE warned ISPs against promoting the practice in its posting.
"We would be concerned if an ISP actively promoted sites or instructions for the specific purpose of circumventing the filter," it wrote. "The department is exploring whether the legislation needs to make this deliberate and specific promotion of circumvention an offence or whether it is already adequately addressed through existing offences in legislation."
"Rather than actually driving this policy with available evidence as it assures us it does, the government seems to have established a private echo chamber out of reach of public scrutiny and criticism," said EFA vice chair Geordie Guy.
"The only thing that is more dismaying, is that canvassing of opinion within this secret club seems to be even less successful than it is publicly, and points out where the minister has misdirected Australians on the government's intentions as a bonus prize."
High-traffic sites and games
The forum postings also revealed the department's ideas about other controversial aspects of the internet filtering initiative.
For example, although Conroy has stated that trials have shown that the impact of the filter on internet speeds would be 70 times less than the blink of an eye, the department noted it was currently exploring options for managing high-traffic sites in a way that minimised the risk of customers experiencing a noticeable speed impact.
"This includes options that would see [RC] content hosted on high traffic sites being managed without it having to be included in the RC Content List, and thus filtered by ISPs," it wrote. "These discussions are ongoing, so at this stage the department is unable to provide further detail on exactly how this process might work."
The department noted "as a minimum", the RC Content List — or blacklist — would contain a list of URLs with unencrypted content. But it noted it was aware that there might be some encrypted HTTPS pages — "for example, log in pages" — which could be "seen" by ISPs, and that it was interested in comments on the practicality of including such pages on the blacklist if they had RC content.
The filter legislation will also allow RC video games to be included on the blacklist at some point, depending on whether the federal and state governments decide to introduce an R18+ category for games or not. The Department plans to start by including the websites of RC games on the blacklist so that they cannot be accessed.
"The technicalities of filtering non-HTTP game traffic will be a consideration in any decision regarding filtering online games," wrote the department. "One consideration could be the potential effectiveness of selectively blocking RC game traffic using IP address and port numbers, and of remote updates to that information through Border Gateway Protocol."
The department also clarified questions about what level of RC content will be blocked on individual sites, responding to a Pacific Internet example using The Age newspaper by saying that it was "an accurate illustration of the situation".
The filter will block a URL and any sub-link of that URL on the blacklist.