Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced last week that government's pilot of ISP-level internet filtering is about to go ahead,  with six ISPs named in the first phase of the trial. The Senator has for months refused to answer any questions or criticisms about the plan, citing this pilot as evidence that all concerns are being listened to and worked on. However, fundamental policy issues remain unaddressed, and some in the community, including Electronic Frontiers Australia, worry that the pilot will serve as little more than a smoke screen.

From the start, the Federal government has treated the internet like a new-fangled television, to which the old censorship regime can simply be extended by legislative fiat. They want to create a PG-rated internet channel that people in homes with kids can tune in to, and ban anything illegal or "unwanted" from the internet airwaves entirely. This fantasy demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of internet service providers and the reality of how the internet actually works.

The internet isn't a broadcast medium, where a few media companies control a limited amount of content. Billions upon billions of web pages exist, millions are created every day, and ordinary users are responsible for much of the content. Text, audio, images and video are mixed together. And it's global, largely beyond the reach of Australian lawmakers. Once you understand this - as the government clearly does not - the idea of a "Department of the Internet" regulating all the content seems absurd, and technological solutions become impractical at best. 

The filtering policy has started to resemble the proverbial dog's breakfast. Among the questions yet to be answered: Where is the evidence of a cyber-safety emergency that requires government intervention instead of parental education? Why is an expensive national ISP filter preferable to cheap filters installed on home computers? What age level is the kid-friendly filter to be targeted at? Who will decide what material is to be banned? What software must ISPs use, and how is it to be deployed?

The upcoming pilot is supposed to address the issues, but what exactly is it a pilot of? Conroy’s statement says that "the live pilot will provide evidence on the real-world impacts of ISP content filtering, including for providers and internet users. It will provide evidence to assist the Government in the implementation of its policy." But the document released by the government states that it only requires participating ISPs to implement the mandatory tier, wherein the ISP is required to filter a few thousand web pages from a government blacklist. It does not specify how this is to be accomplished technically, leaving it up to the ISPs to sort out the details. The original filtering policy, providing a “clean feed” for families, is barely mentioned in the pilot specification. The legitimacy of the trial is further called into question by the ISPs selected to participate. Although Telstra, the nation's largest ISP, declined to take part, the second- and third-largest ISPs did apply. Yet neither Optus nor iiNet, both publicly critical of the proposal in the past, were selected for this round.

The initial round of ISPs are Primus Telecommunications, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1. Those chosen are by and large obscure and too small to credibly test the ability of the filtering scheme to scale to a national level. Estimates for the combined market share of all 6 ISPs are only a few percent at best. The largest of the six, Primus, has the most significant customer base, but they are only testing the mandatory, blacklist-based filter. 

The statement released last week states that testing “with each ISP will take place for a minimum six weeks once filtering equipment has been obtained and installed.” As ISPs are on their own in procuring and configuring the necessary servers and software, it could take some weeks before things get underway.

We are told this will make Australia's children safer. By focusing mainly on blocking access to illegal and other material only adults would try to access, the trial undermines this rationale. We already know, from the government's own tests that no software exists that can reliably filter the internet down to a level appropriate for a child. To even pursue filtering on a national level implies the existence of a generic Australian child for which a definition of 'appropriate' could be agreed upon by all parties. Even if there was such software (and it didn't have a drastic impact on network performance, as tests show) it would be embarrassingly easy to bypass.

As for blocking that illegal material, the conventional wisdom amongst experts is that very little child abuse material is published on the web, instead being traded by secretive communities using peer-to-peer technology that cannot be filtered. Were a web site to make it onto the blacklist, thus thwarting an attempt to access it, the perpetrator would simply have to use one of many free tools on the internet to bypass the ISP's filter. There is no suggestion even by Government that this filter would aid law enforcement, and nobody, including the ISPs themselves, has suggested there is any possibility that the pilot will tell a different story.

There are many considered and well-documented objections to the filtering policy. The government is taking a broad new censorship power for itself, without a mandate from the public or a cogent accounting of why we should allow it them. The trial will not put these questions and concerns to rest. Australia still demands answers. The government should first make a case to the electorate that the policy is even necessary, instead of leaping into a premature trial of unspecified technology. To date, rather than participate in the debate and engage with the plan's critics, the Minister has either stonewalled or accused his opponents of insufficient care for the welfare of children. If the policy was really a sound one, the government would not have to resort to such tactics.

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