28 December 2008

Government ignores its own study on ISP level filtering

A report on the feasibility of ISP level content filtering has been released that clearly highlights the inherent flaws of the government's planned Internet filtering scheme. The government's disregard for its own policy advice is a concern in itself.

The key findings are as follows:

Key Finding 1
There is a need for a clear policy on the goals of any filtering system that might be implemented.

Key Finding 2
The focus of the study was on content available in the form of web pages on the World Wide Web. This does not fully reflect the current dynamics of Internet based media.

Key Finding 3
Australia has a very heterogeneous ISP industry. Depending on the nature of a mandated filtering function, the impact on industry may be significant.

Key Finding 4
The industry is not well prepared for the implementation of content filtering systems. Our findings show that there is great disparity in the vision of how such systems should be implemented and the perceived level of difficulty in implementation.

Key Finding 5
There are many important legal and general business aspects that need to be addressed before a decision can be made on a filtering implementation. Frameworks need to be in place to ensure that the legal aspects and responsibility are adequately addressed.

Key Finding 6
It is evident that there are significant technical problems surrounding dynamic content filtering and its implementation in a nationwide ISP-based content filtering system. Current technology is unlikely to yield efficient and economically viable solutions for this purpose.
Furthermore, the problem is of a nature that requires a research effort before firm conclusions can be drawn on its effectiveness. As the accuracy of this form of filtering is still not high it could be expected that allowed content would be blocked inadvertently. For example, if child pornography is to be blocked, other pornographic content may also be blocked. Conversely, if all pornographic content is to be blocked, other content with a 'resemblance' in features will also be blocked; e.g. sex education, medical information, erotic content etc.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Define the objectives of filtering;
  • Consider applying the above objectives to a national filtering scheme with particular attention to be given to:
    • The role and scope of a filtering scheme;
    • The implementation options: i.e. ISPs either implementing their own filtering capability or utilising a national filtering service (refer to Key Finding 4).
    • The blacklist sources. International sources, such as INHOPE or the Internet Watch Foundation might be considered in conjunction with the ACMA blacklist;
    • The opt in/opt out framework. In particular, consider the implications of making the framework optional for ISPs;
    • The implications of making the national filtering scheme voluntary for the ISP industry, in line with international precedence.
  • Engage with industry to clarify how such a scheme would:
    • Interface with existing ISP infrastructure;
    • Impact on broadband performance;
    • Impact on costs;
    • Handle the issue of recovery of costs to industry as a result of implementation.
  • Undertake analysis to determine how vulnerable a national filtering scheme is to circumvention and to attempts to disable it.
  • Consult relevant stakeholders regarding the management of the nationwide scheme. Issues to consider include:
    • The legal aspects of such a scheme;
    • Compliance with Australian legislation;
    • Complaint procedures for incorrectly classified content;
    • The scope of filtering (to be undertaken in consultation with the general public): what is to be filtered; how often is filtering to be applied; how often will filter lists be updated and provided to ISPs; and
    • How will content be classified; what levels of transparency, scalability and security will apply to the classification process.
  • Mobile Internet service providers should be included in the consultation and planning activities.

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