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Oz Firewall still standing after inconclusive filter trial

Government happy to fit results to policy

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Inconclusive news from the internet filtering trials might turn out to be bad news for the anti-censorship lobby in Australia. The Australian Government’s refusal to explain what exactly would count as a bad result for internet filtering adds to the sense that it will be ploughing on with this regardless.

First the bad news. Initial testing of the Australian government's internet filtering system is being reported as having "gone off fairly well".

Five out of nine ISPs that tested the filtering system - iPrimus, Netforce, Webshield, Nelson Bay Online and OMNIconnect - said they had encountered minimal speed disruptions and few technology problems during the testing phase. Tech2U and Highway1 have yet to conclude testing, and the two remaining ISPs - Unwired and Optus - would not comment.

Overall, the results may turn out to be something of a mixed bag.

At Nelson Bay Online only 15 users, or one per cent of the customer base, are said to have participated. At another ISP, there were complaints that a perfectly legal porn site had been blocked.

CEO of iPrimus Australia Ravi Bhatia said: "The users have not experienced any problems, they haven’t experienced any service degradation so it’s been a pretty good experience."

Noting that the test had had no impact on speed, Webshield managing director, Anthony Pillion, added: "From a technical perspective we’re more than confident that if the government decided to roll out a mandatory Internet filter based on or around an Australian Communications and Media Authority [ACMA] blacklist or subset thereof, then it can be done without any impact whatsoever to the speed of the Internet."

The real issue with this outcome is that the results don’t settle matters one way or the other. They are good enough to reassure the government that the filtering approach might not be as impossible as critics have maintained.

However, as two of the nation's largest ISPs - Telstra and InterNode – remained steadfastly aloof from the testing procedure – these results are in respect of a very small sub-set of individuals indeed, and may not generalise out to the broader internet experience.

Despite this, as anti-censorship website somebodythinkofthechildren points out, the argument must now move on from the purely technical. The problem is that the government does not wish to be drawn on what constitutes success or failure, either for the trial, or for filtering itself, as the following exchange with Triple J reporter Kate O’Toole back in April of this year makes clear.

Talking to Senator Stephen Conroy, the architect of the filtering scheme, on Triple J radio’s Hack programme, Kate O’Toole suggested: "Before you start the trial you’ve got to have an understanding of what is, what’s a pass and a fail, like you’ve got to be able to measure… you can’t sort of wait until the trial finishes and then look back and decide how you’re going to measure the outcome."

Conroy’s response provided an interesting insight into the governmental approach to research. He said: "Well actually that’s how you conduct a trial. You wait to see what the result is and then you make a decision based on the result.

"If the trial shows it cannot be done without slowing the internet down, then we will not do it. But if the trial comes back and says it can be done, then we will go down the path of blocking the RC, and we will look at how it’s possible for parents to be given a choice, a menu of options, that they can block their children from accessing."

The debate continued:

Ms O’Toole: "So do you have a rate of over-blocking in mind that would be unacceptable?"

Senator Conroy: "Well as I’ve said, let’s wait to see what the trial shows us."

Ms O’Toole: "And then you’ll put the goal posts up afterwards?"

Senator Conroy: "As I said, you want to pre-empt the trial, then we’re happy to wait to see what the trial comes back to us with. Perfectly happy."

This is research – but perhaps not as most researchers know it. ®

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