Is the internet going down down under?

It's the end of the net as we know it

The battle is now on for the soul of the Australian internet. The outcome could have enormous repercussions for the future of the internet in the UK.

Regular readers will be aware of the Australian Government’s plans to clamp down on the internet down under. These, the brainchild of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, have been bubbling away since last year, and began, as so many half-baked government schemes do, with the plea that someone "think of the children".

The scheme would put in place a server-level content filtering system, to block material unsuitable for children. The cat was put well and truly amongst the pigeons with the recent claim by Internode network engineer Mark Newton that there will be no opt-out from filtering for parents.

Rather, there will be a blacklist that parents can opt into to "protect their children".

But failing to opt into that list would merely switch users to an alternative filtering system, trapping content deemed unsuitable for adults.

According to Newton: "That is the way the testing was formulated, the way the upcoming live trials will run, and the way the policy is framed; to believe otherwise is to believe that a government department would go to the lengths of declaring that some kind of internet content is illegal, then allow an opt-out".

Cue outrage from the leaders of three of Australia's largest internet service providers — Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett. They variously describe the scheme as "loony", a "bugger to implement", likely to slow down Australian access to the internet significantly, and quite possibly illegal.

According to Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, "you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation" just to achieve this.

Is this such an impossible task? We spoke to CensorNet, a UK company that provides software that enables official bodies to filter out content in the UK, and which is speaking to a couple of Australian ISPs about this project. Its view is that the slow down feared by ISPs is unlikely.

However, the firm foresees two issues with any solution. Most filters tackle just the HTTP. But HTTP accounts for an average of 25 per cent of a user's bandwidth, with the rest taken up by other traffic, including email, peer-to-peer and instant messaging.

The other issue is about identifying the content to filter in the first place. Most filtering systems use a database that categorises content, and then blocks or filters webpages according to category. CensorNet uses the RuleSpace technology, which automatically classifies web content before filtering.

At present, no automated classification works perfectly - no system can automatically detect content that is allegedly "illegal" - and RuleSpace is no exception. A popular implementation for, say, schools is to block specified categories and unclassified content. Whether adults would be happy with a solution that could block over half the internet from their screens is another matter.

A spokesperson for Stephen Conroy’s office tells us that fears are misplaced and nothing has yet been finalised. Rather, they are "in the final stages of preparing an expressions of interest document for ISPs to take part in a field pilot".

They add that $128.5m has been set aside "for a comprehensive cyber-safety program that focuses on education, research, ISP filtering and law enforcement". The focus will be on material such as "child pornography, cruelty or real violence, and sexual violence" that is "already illegal".

Their plans are not unrealistic, because this sort of material "is currently being filtered by a number of ISPs in countries such as the UK, Sweden, Norway and Canada with no impact on network speeds or performance".

This is not strictly true: some minor filtering of web content goes on in these jurisdictions, but nothing on the scale envisaged by the Australian Government.

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