SYDNEY – An Australian government plan to set up a national Internet content filtering plan has been denounced as technically impossible by service providers and users.
The opt-out plan, announced this month by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, requires all ISPs to filter “objectionable material” from Internet traffic according to a blacklist defined by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
But Internet service providers, IT managers and Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) have rebutted the scheme, claiming it is technically impossible and economically infeasible to implement, police and maintain ISP-level content filtering.
According to respondents, such content filtering could turn into an infringement on freedom of information and political activism, and become a moral arbiter for inappropriate content.
EFA chair Dale Clapperton said the proposal is too vague and could result in the censorship of other content such as euthanasia, drugs and protest. “Even if the system targets child porn, it won’t stay that way for long; we are seeing the thin edge of the wedge,” Clapperton said.
Clapperton hit back at claims that censorship of drugs, political dissent and other legal freedoms is hysteria. “Once the public has allowed the system to be established, it is much easier to block other material,” he said.
Michael Meloni, author of NetAlarmed.com, a parody site of the government’s Internet filtering legislation who is also a Web production manager, said the scheme is a political ploy which lacks transparency. “All existing reports into Internet content filtering have said it is economically disastrous and impossible to control,” Meloni said.
“There are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to start. Mr Conroy has made himself look like a fool who doesn’t know how big the Internet is. I have zero doubt that it will be ineffective.”
A 2003 Howard government-commissioned report on the viability of Internet content filtering stated that government mandated filtering by ISPs will stifle innovation, inflate Internet access prices and cause online usage to plummet. “We saw this in the early days of the Internet where the walled garden services of the likes of AOL and CompuServe failed to survive the greater desire of users to explore beyond the safe and prescribed content available,” the report states.
“Australian ISPs interviewed as part of this project have indicated they will pass on additional costs to their customers. There will also be enforcement costs.”
The report rated self regulation as the most economically viable solution over any form of government intervention. Meloni compared the idea to China’s Internet censorship where its filters are overrun by mass generation of new content, and a lack of online police.
“No more than five percent, probably far less, of illegal content would be trapped and in addition to the illegal content, there are thousands of porn pages automatically generated every day,” he said. Speaking to media in the speech announcing the legislation, Conroy said the government “makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the Internet is like going down the Chinese road”.
Meloni accused the government of using the scheme to buy political favor from Family First Senator Steve Fielding. Fielding and The Australian Family Association has lobbied Conroy to add a grey list of other objectionable materials, including pro anorexia sites, to the filter.
A director of a small Sydney-based ISP, who requested anonymity, said the move is “grossly political” and accused the government of creating “another Harradine” in the Senate.
“Labor needs Fielding’s support to pass legislation if it’s opposed by the [Coalition],” he said. “It’s bloody obvious who’s pulling the strings.”
He said government content filtering will financially ruin small ISPs. “I’ll pack up and join the picket line at Canberra the minute this thing comes in – it will destroy our livelihoods, and for what?”
Ross Wheeler, director of an Albury-based ISP, said the plan will hit the wallets of ISPs and consumers. “I have no doubt, absolutely no doubt, that this will come straight out of the pockets of consumers and will sink small ISPs.” He said Internet content filtering is impossible in Australia because of network configurations.
“If the government came to me and said you must filter this data, I couldn’t do it,” Wheeler said. “It would be technically doable if this happened three years ago when we provided all of our own infrastructure, but it’s too late.”
Under the current network model, ISPs effectively do not have access to customer data as it is bypassed through resold services and infrastructure owned by larger providers such as Optus and Telstra.
Filtering is also impossible for infrastructure owners because customer data is encrypted before it enters their systems.
“Smaller ISPs effectively only provide authentication for end-user data. The [service] is terminated on someone’s NAS (Network Access Server) so the smaller ISPs never see the customer data and there is no mechanism for interception or filtering,” Wheeler said.
“The data from the DSLAM is encrypted end-to-end over the wholesaler LNS (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol Network Server).”
ISPs level filters must identify data sourced from multiple global locations through multiple wholesaler providers. Data identification is impossible, according to respondents, because a single image can be composed of fragmented data routed through infrastructure owned by Optus, Telstra and PIPE.
“There is no computer anywhere that can look at any given image and deem whether it is illegal,” Wheeler said. “We aren’t talking about small holes a brilliant teenage hacker will get through; we are talking about holes that you could haul a B-Double truck through.”
He said the best Internet content filtering scheme would be to sever the undersea network cables connecting Australia to the rest of the world.
“We could just kill the Internet and run a national Intranet, or maybe employ a whole state to monitor everyone else and create the ‘Internet Lite’.”
“Mum and dad will be the ones inconvenienced; the people after illegal content will still get it.” Wheeler said IP crime can only be fought by coordinating international law enforcement. He said the government should “question what is legal and illegal” if international support is impossible.
A network administrator for a Queensland bank said the system could be bypassed by blending illegal and legitimate content, hosting content through open proxies outside Australia, or sending data through mail and DNS ports if open ports were closed.
“It’s unbelievable how easy it is to beat this system,” he said.