Voluntary filter: Why I’m dumping Telstra


This post is by Michael Wyres, a fifteen-year veteran of the IT industry who has covered roles in the public and private sectors across network engineering, support and development. He currently works as a VoIP solutions developer for a private company in Melbourne. This article was first published on his blog, Musings of a Geek, and is re-published here with his permission.

opinion About a year ago, Telstra — along with Optus and iPrimus — agreed to “voluntarily” apply a version of the government’s mandatory internet filter to the connections of all of their customers. They agreed to “voluntarily” filter out at least a certain subset (mainly child pornography) of the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s blacklist, the complete contents of which is the basis of the mandatory filter plan.

The problem is, while Telstra, Optus, and iPrimus have “voluntarily” agreed to apply this reduced version of the government’s filter, the customers of these ISPs have not been given any “voluntary” rights as to whether or not their connection(s) come under this “voluntary” plan.

It is not “voluntary”.

Now, to be perfectly clear, nobody with a right mind (myself included) would ever condone/support the production and/or dissemination of child pornography on the internet or elsewhere. The problem with the internet filtering plan — whether “voluntary” or “mandatory” — is that it is only designed to block requests to an identified list of websites.

The bottom line is that this kind of material is generally not spread on websites. There is ample evidence that the sick puppies sharing this stuff around are doing it through email, via file sharing networks, and newsgroups – and over encrypted channels too. The style of filter being applied does not restrict these distribution methods even in the slightest — and almost moronically, the government has said that there will be no penalty for bypassing the filter.

So why do it?

The methods the sickos use to get access to this kind of material don’t leave log files around for people to check. The internet traffic flows they create are not definitive evidence that they are accessing this kind of material, and the filter does nothing to prevent them from accessing it. But the real problem is not the distribution of child pornography. A JPEG image or an MPEG movie in and of itself does not hurt anyone. It is the content that has hurt someone — the children in it.

If you waved a magic wand, and magically every electronically stored piece of child pornography in the world disappeared, that would be great. If a month later someone was able to obtain some online, this means only one thing.

Somewhere in the world, sometime in that month, a child has been abused by someone — mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually — and it was captured for distribution. It is this production that must stop. You can’t stop child pornography by trying to hide it. You have to stop it from being produced. And the internet filter doesn’t even hide it — it might only blur it a little bit.

There have been countless prosecutions in regards to online child pornography of late:

I could go on, but do you notice the pattern? These cretins are being identified and prosecuted. The SOURCE of this rubbish is being identified, and children are being rescued. All without an internet filter. A filter would force these people further underground, and make their detection even harder — making it harder to rescue these kids from peril. A filter could actually further entrench the child pornography trade, and condemn more children to such abuse.

That should be the focus. The children.

Until January this year, I had been a loyal Telstra mobile customer since 1996 — almost fifteen years. I’ve never had any problems with their service; it has always been reliable, and in the advent of mobile broadband, their coverage and throughput is second to none.

It is interesting to note that Australia’s two biggest ISPs — Telstra and Optus — have more to gain than any other ISPs from a participation deal with the upcoming National Broadband Network. Is implementing the “voluntary” filter a requirement for those deals to be made? Telstra is gaining $11 billion, and Optus is gaining $800m through their NBN deals. I still believe that the filter is ultimately doomed, but this is food for thought.

The bottom line is that the telcos have now taken sides with a plan that is useless and unwarranted, and had I still been with Telstra — I would have no choice to opt-out of their filtering. Once you start on the path of censorship, and the mechanisms are in place, freedom of speech and democracy take a hit. Bit by bit, the powers that be will identify more and more content as worthy of “protecting” us from, and one day it will go too far — and it will be much harder to rectify than it was to implement.

I cannot and will not be a party to that, and that is why I left Telstra.

Image credit: mtellin, Creative Commons


  1. As is typical of Michael’s commenting on this and other sites, this is well thought out and well argued. Well done.

  2. Anyone actually read the blacklist? I did, well at least one leaked installment of it. The same one that the Australian Government sought to have Wikileaks staff extradited from Sweden, for interrogation and incarceration in Australia, over.

    Most of the list WAS pornography, for sure, but certainly not “child pornography”. There were also plenty community (social networking) sites, the kind that help us to hunt the purveyors of exploitative and illegal content, but, perhaps more importantly there were heaps of sites on the list that wouldn’t even pick up a PG rating in other media forms, including blogs, personal pages and independent media groups built around political commentary and investigative journalism.

    Boycott Telstra all you want, and be sure that I’ll join you, but if your activism around censorship starts and ends with consumer choice around which telco your money goes to then don’t expect to see any change…

    • Audry – the list being used for this “voluntary” filtering is not the full ACMA blacklist – and at this stage apparently only includes those sites that made it onto the list for being categorised as child pornography.

      That’s not the real problem – the real problem is that the mechanism is in place, so now it will only be a matter of adding to the list and/or implementing the full ACMA blacklist.

        • Bit of a thought experiment following the money. Who could gain from this stupid filter. Obviously there are some religious factions interested in censorship but not that much money there, some votes though.
          One group with big money who would love having a censorship mechanism in place is the RIAA. How easy would it be for the blacklist to expand rapidly to include file-sharing sites and other perceived enemies of the media giants.
          Probably just being paranoid.

      • “the list being used for this “voluntary” filtering is not the full ACMA blacklist – and at this stage apparently only includes those sites that made it onto the list for being categorised as child pornography.”

        The problem is, Michael, is that the URLs on the leaked “secret” blacklist did not have any child pornography.

        Most of them showing children were professional photographers’ sites – sure they showed kids but the kids were dressed and with no sexual connotations. I downloaded a few and printed them to show my friends what the govt was calling “child pornography”.

        You mentioned the people who had been prosecuted for viewing child pornography. How do you know that the pics were not the perfectly innocent ones described above? Remember they are classified as “child pornography”. And before you say that the courts have more sense, remember the bloke who was prosecuted for having a Simpsons cartoon.

  3. What’s really dumb about a “voluntary” trial, is that people who don’t like the idea of being filtered will just switch ISPs to one that doesn’t do filtering. So what’s the actual point?

    • More than likely, the average schmo won’t even know. Even if they receive a letter or email saying that it’s happening, it’ll be “sold” to them on the “we’re protecting you” line.

      Happy shiny family feelings.


      • Right, which makes it even more pointless, IMO, because the average schmo is never going to visit a “child pornography” site anyway. So again, what’s the actual point?

        People who would never visit a “child pornography” site don’t care, and people who would want to visit one will just use a different ISP.

  4. *blocks all content on the TV about wars in the world* nah nah the wars aren’t happening….

  5. I’m a BigPond customer, and disagree with the voluntary filtering – however, they’re the only ones who offer a 100mbit service over their HFC network (no Optus in my street). I’m not going back to the dial-up-esque speeds of ADSL2 (10mbit at best in my area) over an issue that, for the immediate future, doesn’t impact me.

  6. Sorry Michael – don’t buy this thin edge of the wedge stuff. The filtering that Telstra and Optus are applying will have no impact on anything – so why make a fuss? Are you really going to dump Telstra or are you just saying that for a nice headline?

    It’s a non-issue…..build a bridge.

    • I *have* dumped Telstra. Several months ago, for exactly this reason. Call it the thin edge of the wedge if you like, but this choice was a matter of principle.

      I can’t stand up against the filter – (which I have done since day one) – and then happily give my money to an organisation that actively supports it.

      That would be hypocritical.

      • “I *have* dumped Telstra. Several months ago, for exactly this reason.”

        You mean you have dumped BigPond, you never really dump ‘Telstra’ unless you have gone Optus HFC, TransACT cable, non Telstra wireless or you are in a nonTelstra FTTH Greenfields estate.

        • Don’t drag that tired old argument into this – I don’t receive a single Telstra bill.

          Sure, some of my money still ultimately finds may through to Telstra, but there’s no choice there – yet. Currently, I can’t avoid the unavoidable. Not everyone has access to alternatives.

        • Telstra supplies me with nothing. I receive no Telstra bills whatsoever. Ultimately, yes – my phone line carries my DSL into my home – a piece of copper currently owned by Telstra – but for that I have no choice.

          I have exercised my choice where I am able to exercise it.

          • Well as long as you didn’t change because you switched to a much better value plan, but switched ‘out of principle’ because of the filter, that’s the main thing eh MW?

          • Fine it’s just that most customers leave BigPond because there is better value elsewhere, I suppose it is possible to have ‘principles’ and get better value purely as a bonus!


          • Yes some people have principles alain… that obviously comes as a shock to one like you!

  7. The basic problem with the plan is simply that the filtered material is secret – it is supposed to be child pornography. But is it? How do you know? Do you believe something the government tells you just because it is the government? Especially when there is no easy way of finding out if it is the truth? And why must it be secret? Simply because it is so easy to bypass.

    Add to this the natural suspicion that the agreement of these companies (Telstra and Optus) looks, even if it isn’t, a quid pro quo for a favourable deal on the NBN.

  8. I am actually signing up to Telstra for the sole reason of reverse-engineering the black-list and leaking it to prove none of the content is either still online, or illegal.

    I’ve already written the program that performs the Oracle attack, i.e. by sending fake handshake TCP packets in order to discover any proxying:

    //Create a list for the interfaces
    List wpcInterfaces = new List();
    //Get all local interfaces
    WinPcapInterface[] arWpc = EthernetInterface.GetAllPcapInterfaces();
    //Create a router
    Router rRouter = new Router();

    int index = 0;
    //Foreach WinPcapInterface of this host
    foreach (WinPcapInterface wpc in arWpc)
    if (index > 0)
    //Create a new interface handler and start it
    EthernetInterface ipInterface = new EthernetInterface(wpc);

    //Then add it to the router and to our list

    //Create a TCP frame
    TCPFrame tcpFrame = new TCPFrame();
    tcpFrame.DestinationPort = 80;
    tcpFrame.SourcePort = 12345;
    tcpFrame.SynchronizeFlagSet = true;

    //Create an IP frame and put the TCP frame into it
    IPv4Frame ipFrame = new IPv4Frame();


      • I chose C#.NET over Java purely because I’m going to host the attack from my Windows 7 box – so there’ll be less potential lag in the .NET stack as it’s more closely woven into the operating system.

        I would chose a different language for a Unix attack.

        • The first first obvious this to do is run the existing 2009 blacklist through a webspider to test for any remaining items on the current blacklist.

  9. Well, given that adding a compulsory filter to whatever product you have with Telstra, Iprimus or Optus would most certainly fall under the juristiction of the TIO. If they refuse to remove your service from this filter, I would say you have reasonable grounds to leave penalty free from the contract. However if they give you the required notice that you can leave penalty free and then you do not – this particular point would be moot.

    However until I hear that Optus, Telstra and Iprimus are allowing their customers to opt out of their contract relating to the involuntary application of this filter (a new product feature that was not agreed to at the point of the contract), then I would say you could reasonably argue this is a breach of contract.

    Just something to note.

    • Please oh please argue this one.

      No matter what content is on the list the whole reason the government is trying to push the legislation (yes, government legislation, so that wouldn’t be a breach of contract regardless) is they are proposing that it will block child pornography.

      So if you argue it you either know without hesitation what is on the list, which none of us do, or you’ll give the appearance you’re arguing for the right to look at child pornography.

      Believe me I agree the filter will not work, it could never work from a technical perspective, but trying to argue that having something supposed to block child pornography on your service is a breach of contract because it restricts your access would just be pure entertainment for the rest of us.

  10. The problem is whether the sites blocked are just child porn, or if they also include consensual adult porn. Some stuff might be degrading, but if all participants are consenting adults, mentally able to give consent, and doing so free of coercion, then it shouldn’t be banned.

    The problem is how do you introduce that transparency without making the list of sites available to people seeking out that material? My suggestion would be to make the list available to trusted members of the media (and possibly representatives of Opposition parties) but without them being able to publish any sites on the list which are genuinely child porn. If they find a site which shouldn’t be on the list, a gambling site for instance, then let them publish.

    I don’t have a problem with this though if it is just child porn being blocked. I don’t think it addresses the issue of torrenting and they should be doing more to actually shut down the sites rather than just block them, but I don’t really have a problem with the filter if they can somehow guarantee that it is ONLY child porn being blocked.

  11. As far as I am aware the TIA is still in force. That means as i read it it is illegal to intercept even electronically with no human intervention a persons communications including data.

    Therefore the filter as currently implemented is illegal.

    Without a court order you must advise the end user that you are intercepting their communications, and not do it unless they agree.

    I don’t see what they are doing is at all legal. Even the trials were illegal unless the customer accepted it.


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