Web filters mean bad news for business

Government-mandated Internet filters can lead to higher access fees for enterprises, which also risk being blacklisted unnecessarily, note industry watchers.

Filtering at the Internet service provider (ISP) level will result in businesses experiencing speed reductions, higher access fees and the possibility of being unintentionally blocked, according to industry observers.

Several countries including Australia, China, Malaysia and Singapore, mandate that ISPs block sites that carry content deemed to be undesirable such as pornography. More recently, some governments are looking to extend this to other types of content.

The Australian government, for example, will introduce in mid-2011 mandatory ISP filtering to block content from overseas servers listed under the country's Refused Classification. Such material includes child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and material that advocates terrorist acts.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, John Mazur, Ovum's principal analyst of switching, routing and packet transport, noted that while setting up filters is not a difficult task for ISPs as tools are readily available to help them do so, administering the list of classified sites will require the participation of content hosts as well as enterprises and employees.

This could lead to higher Internet access or hosting costs for all, Mazur said, though he described the costs as "negligible, slightly higher".

Matthew Oostveen, research manager for services at IDC Australia, told ZDNet Asia the filters will impact businesses even though it is hard to quantify the cost.

"According to a report into the [Australian ISP] filter, during a trial, 3.4 percent of Web content was wrongly blocked and this equates to tens of millions of Web sites," Oostveen said in an e-mail interview. "From a performance perspective, filtering was responsible for speed reductions of 30 to 40 percent."

The trial had involved nine Australian ISPs, but the country's largest ISPs--Telstra and Internode--did not participate.

Oostveen said legitimate businesses could be severely impacted, if not crippled, should they find themselves among the blacklisted sites.

These concerns are shared by Colin Jacobs, vice-chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), which has publicly objected to the filter. He told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that apart from potentially paying more for Internet access, businesses face the risk of not being aware that they may have been wrongly included on the blacklist.

Jacobs noted that there had been situations where Australian businesses were listed on the refused classification blacklist because their sites had been hacked.

He added that EFA's biggest concern is that the filters will "achieve nothing" despite the money spent."It won't help kids, and certainly won't help police. Yet, we're stuck with this filter that has a lot of potential to expand in troubling ways in the future," he said.

Despite these challenges, Ovum's Mazur noted that other Western countries might adapt similar legislation if there were success stories and "demonstrated benefits for the public good" from Australia.

According to a 2007 OpenNet Initiative (ONI) report, Australia "maintains some of the most restrictive Internet policies of any Western nation". A partnership between University of Toronto, Harvard University, University of Cambridge and Oxford University, ONI investigates Internet filtering in countries.

Filters not most effective tools
Filters are not the most effective way to block undesirable content, as trials of content filter have shown to be ineffective, said Oostveen. "Three critical failures of the filter are that it's slow, too broad brushed in its execution, and easily circumvented.

"Australian police are [already] armed with laws that enable them to pursue illegal activities on the Internet and prosecute offenders. If a crime is committed, the police will investigate and if appropriate prosecute," he added. "For those people in our community who would like to censor their Internet feed, there are plenty of devices available that will filter the feed for them and their family."

A Singapore-based ISP agrees that filters are not effective. The country's National Internet Advisory espouses "education--particularly of children and youth--as a more effective long-term solution than the mandatory provisions of filters", a spokesperson from StarHub told ZDNet Asia, citing a 2007 report from Singapore's content regulator, Media Development Authority (MDA).

It is "extremely difficult for any Internet filters to be 100 percent effective" due to the sheer number of objectionable Web sites that emerge on a daily basis and the user's determination to access such Web sites, said the StarHub spokesperson.

"In addition, Internet filters tend to be automated and access to Web sites through a filter is measured in absolutes--either yes or no--rather than in context," he said, pointing to the example of filters blocking cancer awareness Web sites because they contain the word "breast".

According to the spokesperson, there are two types of Internet filters--one that is a software based and installed into a user's computer, and the other is deployed on a server level where ISPs or large multinational companies (MNCs) can directly filter content.

"Both these solutions operate the same way, where they compare URLs requested by the user with a list of Web sites known to be unsuitable, and block access to these sites. Or, they compare keywords, file types of other parameters and block access to any sites that contain such parameters," he said.

ISPs in Singapore typically self-regulate with regard to Internet filtering, and block a list of "100 undesirable Web sites" mandated by the MDA.