Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Great Australian Firewall

History

The Federal Government has proposed a law to filter and restrict access to certain online content from all Australians. Internet filtering on a national scale is not new, but this could very well be the strictest filter ever to be implemented in a western nation. Many also have the opinion that this level of internet censorship rivals those of countries such as China, North Korea, and Iran.

The proposed filter will become mandatory and will be based on a blacklist that is to be maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The list will contain websites which are deemed to contain prohibited content, which is then encrypted and added to a filtering software that is implement at the Internet Service Providers (ISP) level.

In theory, sites containing content that is illegal to own in Australia such as child pornography, material relating to terrorism, detailed instructions promoting criminal activity, drug use and sites promoting racism will be blocked, among many others. An additional list will also be maintained to block websites whose content are deemed unsuitable for a younger audience. The idea is to help parents protect their children from being exposed to unsuitable content such as pornographic images and gambling websites. In contrast to the mandatory first list, consumers will have the ability to opt-out from the “child filter”.

Acceptance

The proposed plans have stirred many discussions and met great opposition. Recently, the US government has expressed its concerns, stating that the scope of the material that could be censored is far too wide. Whilst its intention could be admirable by restricting access to offensive material including child pornography, bestiality, terrorism, and instructional information promoting criminal activity, it could for example be applied to news agencies reporting details of a crime. The leak of a blacklist some time ago proved that false positives are very likely to occur, no system is perfect.

Even Google and Yahoo, the two largest search engine companies have entered the debate, announcing their opposition to the plan. They too think that the filter could restrict access to legal content. Google is of the opinion that a mandatory ISP-level filtering system with a scope that goes well beyond what is only absolutely necessary can raise genuine questions about restrictions on access to information and matters of free speech.
Another issue raised is the cost to implement the plan and the effects it would have on consumers. It is estimated to cost tax payers $82 million dollars to implement. It is still unclear who will have to pay for the equipment, resources, and additional traffic data once implemented. It’s very possible that part of the cost could be passed on to the end consumer. If it were the case, consumers will be forced to pay more for slower access to the internet caused by the additional traffic overheads.

Possibly the most important issue is that many parents could be under the (false) impression that the internet is then entirely safe for their children to explore. Yes the filter will block many objectionable content, yet there are numerous techniques to circumvent the filter. A person does not need to be very tech-savvy to implement some of these techniques. Many can be found easily on the internet, and are undoubtedly already known to many children across Australia. The other problem explained by Yahoo is that the filter would not block peer to peer file sharing, cyber bullying, nor prevent online predators approaching children in chat rooms, or social networking sites.

Conclusion

There is no single solution to the problem we are facing in combating objectionable and illegal content on the internet, and ensuring our children’s online safety. We are of the opinion that nothing can substitute education and parental guidance.

A program such as the one proposed by the government has its merits, but we as a society also need to take into consideration what implications it would have. The internet is not just websites, it’s a network of computer systems that have the ability to communicate with a variety of protocols, not just HTTP. It’s very possible that it would give unknowing parents a false sense of security. If this were to happen on a large scale, the result of this program would actually take us two steps backward from where we currently are.
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