The Australian government plans to test a nationwide Web filtering system that would force Internet service providers to block access to thousands of sites containing questionable or illegal content, prompting cries of censorship from advocacy groups.
The proposed filter is part of a “cybersafety plan” started in May with the goals of protecting children online and stopping adults from downloading content that is illegal to possess in Australia, like child pornography or materials related to terrorism. But the plan has ignited opposition from online advocacy groups and industry specialists who say it would slow browsing speeds and do little to block undesirable content.
Last month, the minister of communications, Stephen Conroy, invited Internet service providers and mobile phone operators to participate in a live trial of the program, which is set to begin this year.
The proposed system consists of two tiers. Under the first, all Australian service providers must block access to around 10,000 Websites on a list maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the federal monitor that oversees film classifications. The second tier would require service providers to provide an optional filter that individuals could use to block material deemed unsuitable for children.
The government says the list, which is not available to the public, includes only illegal content, mostly child pornography. But critics worry about the lack of transparency and say the filter could be used to block a range of morally hazy topics, like gambling or euthanasia.
“Even if the scheme is introduced with the best of intentions, there will be enormous political pressure on the government to expand the list,” said Colin Jacobs, the vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a technology advocacy group. “We worry that the scope of the list would expand at a very rapid rate.” “Our view is there are some serious shortfalls in what is being proposed,” said Mark White, the chief operating officer at iiNet, Australia’s third-largest service provider, which has applied to take part in the trial.
White said the mandatory filter was unlikely to work because it would not monitor illegal activity on peer-to-peer or file-sharing networks, where most child pornography and other illegal content is exchanged. The filter would also slow Internet browsing speeds for all regardless of whether they were trying to access forbidden sites, he said.
This concern has been affirmed by the government’s own research. According to a July report by the communications and media authority, the best filter in tests of six unidentified Internet filtering programs slowed browsing speeds by 2 percent; the other five made the Internet run between 22 and 87 percent slower.
The study found that filtering programs were effective at blocking illicit material around 92 percent of the time, but around 3 percent of legitimate sites were mistakenly caught up in the filters.
Australia’s largest service provider, Telstra, has also expressed doubts about the plan. The firm’s chief operating officer, Greg Winn, said last week that using service provider filters to stop illicit content was “like trying to boil the ocean.” As soon as the filter was applied, he said, someone would find a way to break it.
The children’s welfare group, ChildWise, has defended the plan, saying filtering of child pornography would be “a victory for common sense.” (info from The New York Times)