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Jury out on ISP filtering trial

Internet service providers (ISPs) are sitting on the fence on whether to participate in the government's upcoming live trial for ISP-level filtering of undesirable internet content, with their involvement depending heavily on the terms of the trial.
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Written by Suzanne Tindal, News Editor on

Internet service providers (ISPs) are sitting on the fence on whether to participate in the government's upcoming live trial for ISP-level filtering of undesirable internet content, with their involvement depending heavily on the terms of the trial.

(Credit: ZDNet.com.au)

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is set to kick off the expressions of interest process for the live trial before the end of this month, following the completion earlier in the year of testing and review of content filtering software, the results of which were published in July. He faces concerns on costs and performance consequences of filtering measures.

When asked if Telstra would take part in the trial, a spokesperson for the telco said it "absolutely depends on the nature of the trial". There were good and bad ways of going about filtering, the spokesperson said, adding that the ISP would deal with whatever the government required it to do, although they said the government and not ISPs should ideally be responsible for setting the rules on content.

The spokesperson pointed to an earlier editorial sent to the Age by former Telstra BigPond head Justine Milne, who is now the managing director for Telstra Media.

"Online security can be assured when ISPs objectively apply the legislation of an elected and accountable parliament, when offenders are judged and punished by an impartial justice system, and when the system is policed by appropriately resourced and equipped law enforcement agencies," the executive wrote.

"Internet service providers should not serve as de facto sheriff, judge and hangman; they should instead implement policies agreed by elected governments to be in the public interest".

Optus said it had been working with the Internet Industry Association (IIA) on the issue, but that it wouldn't decide to participate before it could review the expression of interest document.

"Our plan at this stage is to take part in the trial, we'll know more when we see the documents," Greg Bader iiNet CTO told ZDNet.com.au. He said the carrier had been meeting with the people concerned, trying to narrow down exactly what would be involved.

"Our concern is there's a cost, and we question the effectiveness of it," he said, adding that it didn't make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money on something that 99.99 per cent of the population wouldn't notice.

Unwired didn't intend to take part at all. "We, like all members of the IIA have been given the chance to comment on the terms of the trial," Unwired manager regulatory and corporate affairs David Havyatt said. "At this stage we've decided not to participate."

This didn't mean the ISP questioned the validity of the trial, he said, but Unwired had other concerns at present, such as the planned roll out of its WiMax network.

3 had also been working with associations on the issue, however, the company wasn't in a position to say anything further.

"It depends on how complex and how much cost would be involved and what would be the benefit," Netspace regulatory and carrier affairs manager Matthew Phillips said, saying the ISP wasn't feeling excited about the notion. "Our customers aren't banging on our door and demanding that we implement filtering any time soon."

He said the whole idea smelled of regulatory intervention and would have a price. "These things the government decides in their ultimate wisdom should be implemented do cost the consumer," he said.

Exetel CEO John Linton said that if it were compulsory by law, Exetel would do it, or if it was simple and wouldn't cost a bundle. "If someone said there's a black list of known child porn sites, then we'd do it," he said.

People Telecom CEO John Stanton said he had no objection in principle to taking part in the trial, but that he would need to see details before deciding.

Internode was not willing to comment.

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