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Aus gov, ISPs book seats for firewall demolition

New filters to catch nasty stuff

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With the future of the great Australian firewall once more up for grabs, major ISPs are seeking to forestall government plans by announcing a filter of their own. However, unlike the government’s proposed filter, this one will apply specifically to sites identified as hosting child porn.

Of three major ISPs identified by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy as possible candidates for implementing such a filter, Telstra and Optus appear to be bought in to the idea, while Primus remains non-committal.

This announcement, coupled with recent utterances by Stephen Conroy on the eve of the election, suggest that the government is finally bowing to reality, whilst all concerned are seeking face-saving ways to shift position.

At issue is the great Australian firewall, a proposed mandatory filter that would block any and all material identified as RC or “"refused classification" by the Australian Classification Board. This inclusion of RC material, which could extend to a range of sites whose content was considered simply controversial, has long been at the heart of opposition to the filter.

In July, Senator Controy announced that plans for the mandatory filter would be put on hold while the Classification Board carried out a major review of what should count as RC. This received faint praise from Greens Communication Spokesman Scott Ludlam, who welcomed the announcement but also spoke of the continuing need for "enhanced transparency and accountability measures".

While Australia waits for the filter to arrive, users will still be protected, as Senator Conroy also announced an agreement with major ISPs Telstra, Optus and Primus that they would impose web content filtering for their customer base – believed to cover at least 70 per cent of Australian internet usage – on a list of sites believed to contain child abuse material.

In a sign of further shuffling, Stephen Conroy admitted publicly last week, on Triple J radio’s Hack program that there were "legitimate concerns" that the RC category was too broad. The review would therefore consider whether the rating still properly reflected the community view.

He also suggested that the filter could "change substantially".

Common sense – or simply an admission that with both Coalition and Greens now openly opposed to the filter, the Senate arithmetic simply does not add up, and the plan is now dead in the water anyway?

It is in this context that a further commitment by Telstra and Optus to going ahead with their own filter regardless should be seen: with a genuine alternative to a highly unpopular proposal up and running, the canny view is that there could be no further reason for the government to press ahead with its mandatory filter proposals, beyond extreme political masochism.

According to Optus' director of corporate affairs, Maha Khrishnapillai, quoted in ComputerWorld: "We have always worked with law enforcement in blocking criminal activity [but] the filter allows us to block access to criminal sites hosted overseas."

In the same article, Primus Telecom chief executive Ravi Bhatia is reported as saying that they have no plans as yet to implement the filter, and remained non-committal to the filter as a whole: "If it does happen, if there’s law, everybody has to do it. If there’s no law, we have to listen to what our customers say. We are a customer-driven organisation at the end of the day." ®

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