Five disturbing things about the Interpol filter


opinion This month, Australia gets its first mandatory Internet filtering scheme, courtesy of a project which is seeing the nation’s largest ISPs Telstra and Optus block their users from visiting a ‘worst of the worst’ list of child pornography sites defined by international agency Interpol. But the project hasn’t exactly come up smelling like roses. Here’s five things we find disturbing about the whole thing.

1. Telcos aren’t informing users

Telstra’s implementation of the filter went live last week. However, to our knowledge, Telstra hasn’t yet informed its millions of customers that their Internet connections are being filtered for a blacklist of sites. There has been no mass customer emails that we know of, no press releases, and the telco only confirmed its blacklist filter had gone live when we asked it late on Friday night last week.

Furthermore, the telco does not appear to have modified its end user agreement to include a section about filtering, so that new customers know what to expect.

2. There is no civilian oversight

You would expect that if millions of Australians are having their Internet connections filtered for a blacklist of sites, that there would be an independent government agency overseeing the process — such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Not so with the Interpol filter scheme.

The scheme was developed by industry group the Internet Industry Association, along with ISPs like Telstra and Optus and law enforcement groups such as the Australian Federal Police and Interpol itself. Those who are curious about how the whole filter process works currently have to enquire about the matter to one of these bodies.

Out of those groups, only the IIA has been forthcoming with details about the intricate workings of the filter over the past several weeks since the scheme was revealed. And the IIA is not directly answerable to the public — only its members, which are mainly ISPs.

3. The law is unclear

The legal mechanism under which the filter is being introduced is Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act. Under the Act, the Australian Federal Police is allowed to issue notices to telcos asking for reasonable assistance in upholding the law. It is believed the AFP has issued such notices to Telstra and Optus to ask them to filter the Interpol blacklist of sites.

However, other ISPs such as iiNet, Internode, TPG and Exetel appear to be uncertain as to where precisely they would stand if the AFP issued such a notice to them. Would they be forced to implement a filter against their wishes? Would they even be able to publicly disclose that they had received a notice? Is ISP filtering itself actually currently illegal? Right now, nobody knows.

4. The potential for scope creep is strong

Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act does not specifically deal with child pornography. In fact, it only requires that ISPs give government officers and authorities (such as police) reasonable assistance in upholding the law.

Because of this, there appears to be nothing to stop the Australian Federal Police from issuing much wider notices under the Act to ISPs, requesting they block other categories of content beyond child pornography, which are also technically illegal in Australia (‘Refused Classification’) but not blocked yet. A number of sites which were on the borderlines of legality — such as sites espousing a change of legislation regarding euthanasia — were believed to be included as part of the blacklist associated with the Federal Government’s much wider mandatory filtering policy. Could the AFP request these be blocked as well?

5. There is no open and transparent appeal process

Right now, if a web site is wrongfully included on Interpol’s blacklist of sites, there is only one way to appeal and get it removed — through Interpol or associated law enforcement agencies such as the Australian Federal Police. And Interpol doesn’t appear to want to discuss the matter very much. Its ‘complaints procedure’ page states:

“Interpol will not be in position to engage in dialogue with complainants, nor will they receive any information on whether the domain has been removed from the list of blocked domains or not.”


In contrast, the Federal Government has pledged to introduce much more transparent review processes into its much wider Internet filtering scheme. For example, its blacklist will be reviewed annually by an independent expert, feature “clear ” avenues for appeal of classification decisions and a policy will be put in place to allow for all decisions to be reviewed by the existing Classification Review Board.

Now, we don’t want to be too harsh about the IIA’s Interpol filtering scheme as it is being implemented by Telstra and Optus. It is quite hard for a site to get on Interpol’s blacklist, with multiple agencies having to authorise additions, and there is a certain attraction around the idea that we’re only blocking the “worst of the worst” sites containing child pornography, instead of a much wider category of content. In addition, it doesn’t seem as if there have been many instances internationally where implementation of the list has caused problems.

However, we are mystified as to why the IIA, Telstra, Optus and the AFP are displaying such a lack of transparency in their implementation of the scheme. We are talking about a filtering scheme here which is being implemented behind closed doors, with little notification to customers, with no civilian oversight, an unclear legal framework, the potential for scope creep and a limited and secretive appeals process overseen by the agency which drew up the list to start with.

Come on, Australia. Is this the best we can do?

Image credit: Svilen Milev (author site), royalty free


    • Hmm well I think most people would appreciate the difference between law enforcement and civilian administration. It’s a useful term in this context.

  1. Hey Renai, there’s a good post on whirlpool by lbs about S313 of the Telecomunications Act.

    ‘Using the ‘reasonably necessary’ assistance provisions for so-called ‘blocking’ of web sites is an extremely novel (and imo dubious) interpretation of s313. (And, if such an interpretation holds up, IIA et al are inviting scope creep.)

    Until now, it has meant assistance in the form of:

    providing information about a specified customer, e.g. address and phone call records or email records etc, (written request, not warrant), and intercepting/providing content of communications (with warrant); and
    assistance in dealing with particular incidents, e.g.
    emergency call-trace because of a serious risk to life or property; assistance in a siege or hostage situation; the provision and setting up of equipment to be used in a particular investigation, and such like.’

    It would be interesting if you could talk to Irene Graham from (lbs from whirlpool). She has been following censorship in Australia for years and seems to have a good knowledge of the laws around it.

  2. I churned from Bigpond last Thursday citing the filter as my reason. I asked that my contract termination charges be waived as I believed they had substantially changed the ToS without notification. I was told a supervisor would call me back in a few minutes. That was 11.30am yesterday (Friday) and I’m still waiting for the call. I will continue to follow this up both with Telstra and with the TIO.

    I’ve also asked the CEO’s office why there hasn’t been a public announcement and why there’s no information for customers or potential customers on the website. I also questioned the need for notification of the change to the ToS (the CEO’s office has already denied it’s a ToS change but I’m not happy with the explanation*). And I raised the possibility that potentially the filter may be illegal. I haven’t heard back yet back but I’ve found from experience that that office does take 2 or 3 business days to reply.

    * “Our Customer Terms require that customers do not breach laws when using their Telstra service. Consequently, steps made to block access to illegal content, such as the INTERPOL child abuse sites, do not constitute a change in the terms of our service.” As I mentioned on another thread here, that’s a big wide open gate for Telstra and future censorship.

    • PS I’m just amazed at how secretive Telstra and Optus are over this. Although I guess I shouldn’t be. This is real backdoor stuff as far as I’m concerned and I can almost smell the possibility of political/financial pressure from the government.

      • I agree Ron. Mr Conroy in his simple non-co-operative way is bringing in his filter any way he can. Mandatory filters the way he wants them managed is “trojanic” in nature. Renai’s 5 points show up Conroy’s intentions. It may not be Conroy directly doing this but I bet he is influencing this in a big way. There is more to this than meets the eye!

    • Yes, the problem of scope creep was raised at least as far back as 2009. So, while not new, it is still a problem that needs to be considered. Maybe more so now that there is actually an implementation.

  3. “Child pornography is great,” the man said enthusiastically. “Politicians do not understand file sharing, but they understand child pornography, and they want to filter that to score points with the public. Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing.”

    The date was May 27, 2007, and the man was Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group (Antipiratgruppen). He was speaking in front of an audience from which the press had been banned; it was assumed to be copyright industry insiders only. It wasn’t.

  4. What everyone seems to miss with this is that the IIA seem to be pushing this Interpol list to avoid Conroy legislating a much wider filtering regime. Whilst the Interpol list may have some faults, it would be hard to argue that the sites on it were not disturbing to say the least. Even without seeing the list, knowing that it needs to be put forward and verified by a number of law enforcement agencies gives it some legitimacy.

    The alternative, it would seem, is that Conroy goes and enacts legislation (per Labor policy), and that list would be managed by ACMA, still subject to secrecy (we all remember what happened a couple of years ago when a list was leaked), and more liable to having scope creep to include groups which have anti-democracy, jihadist, anti-euthanaisa, anti-copyright or anything else which may take the favor of government of the day. The chance of this happening is lower using a law enforcement list – and bypassing a wider filter mandated by a goverment is a win for me.

    • “Whilst the Interpol list may have some faults, it would be hard to argue that the sites on it were not disturbing to say the least.”

      It’s hard to argue how disturbing the sites on the list are mostly because we don’t know which ones are actually on the list.

  5. *lifts rug and sweeps all the child pornography under it, before putting it back down again and leaning on his broom*

    Good job getting rid of all that pesky child porn! I have successfully protected children the world over. I’m expecting my medal and memorial statue soon!

    Honestly, and I sound like a broken record saying it, but the real traffickers of child exploitation material wont be doing it through public websites – it’ll all be done through personal file sharing or other non-filtered methods, so the filter will have little to no effect.

    And whether or not the IIA pushing this version of the filter in order to prevent Conroy’s vision of a filter from coming in, it’s still a case of choosing the lesser of two evils.

    But then again, why worry about filtering illegal material if you’re not doing anything illegal, right? /sarcasm

  6. What a fucking joke!

    I bet 99% of normal people knew nothing about child pornography sites even existing. Even now that its been bought into this massive spotlight, i still dont want to look at them. If they want to enforce them, why do they do something about it, rather than being a bunch of lazy shits looking for the easy way all the time!

  7. How nice of Telstra to filter customers internet without telling them formally. Yes it was sarcasm. I really hope they will get burned by this, what a shabby way to treat your customers.


    • You think Telstra cares?

      All their leechy low-profit customers are getting handed over to the NBN anyhow.

      Once NBN is in place, filtering will be built right into the system. Churn away… there’s nowhere to go.

      • You’d think someone named “Tel” would know how difficult it is to implement filtering on a Level 2 network without creating a serious security issue, that is, impossible.

        Put simply it’ll be easier to mandate ISPs do it than to try and build it into the NBN.

  8. this has the attention of anon.
    anon. will bring tel$tra to its knees.
    tel$tra already know this and are worried, as they should be.
    we shall sit back and watch with baited breath.

    • Anonymous fight for free speech, that is their basic agenda.

      Right now the Interpol list is focused solely on child pornography, it doesn’t extend beyond those limits, and it’s being used in other places around the world, Anonymous is yet to raise a finger to them because the Interpol list doesn’t affect free speech and in turn their agenda.

      Put simply, you’re speaking out of your arse.

  9. Like Ted Appleby wrote: The child pornography is just an excuse to set up a filter.
    The government now has a filter that it can expand when they want. The fact that the list is kept secret only means there is a lot on it that they don’t want you to know and that has nothing to do with child pornography.

    ‘In addition, it doesn’t seem as if there have been many instances internationally where implementation of the list has caused problems’? That’s only because nobody knows what is on it.

  10. Why are you perpetuating the myth that this is an Internet Filtering scheme? This is a DNS blacklisting scheme and in operation it is no different to Domain Registrars that point expired domain names to web servers advertising their own services.

    Yes, it is a form of censorship (and that in itself is no good), but it is much cheaper and less invasive than the Deep Packet Inspection techniques used for real Internet Filtering. And in reality it is actually more open and manageable than the Internet Censorship legislation proposed by Senator Conroy and his cohorts with its secret list managed by the ACMA. A secret list that is not and will not be open for public scrutiny or comment.

    • So, JK, how is this filtering not based on “A secret list that is not and will not be open for public scrutiny or comment”?

      Where is the information on the Bigpond and Optus sites announcing the filter and its details so that it’s available for ‘public scrutiny’?

      Why haven’t the customers of those companies been advised of the filter?

      • What sort of “public scrutiny” are you after? The same as Police don’t give details about people they are actively investigating or conducting surveillance on, they are just as unlikely to give details on the specifics of the filtering that is in place.

        And ISPs are probably taking the view that blocking these sites will not be an adverse change to customer conditions, and they’ve covered it off by saying that they can make changes to the service.

  11. Since I first heard the story about Interpol filters in Australia, I thought the timing was suspect.

    Assuming ISPs resolve Renai’s first point and are honest with their customers, this filter is setting a worrying precedent that could be used to justify the more sweeping and comprehensive filter schemes Senator Conroy is proposing. I can see the talking points now: “The Interpol filter was benign and worked great, and our filter will be even better!”

    Complacency, and acceptance of this as the status quo are what terrify me.

  12. Problem #7 – it sweeps the actual children under the carpet.

    1. In 10+ years on the internet, I’ve never ever seen child porn, even while looking for normal porn. No doubt it could be found if looked for. But that’s the point – if I’m looking for it, I’m already disturbed. If I come across it by accident (no pun intended) I’m outraged and call the authorities.

    2. If I never see it, if it’s blocked, I never call the authorities. Nobody raises an alarm. Everyone is silent, because it’s “not there anymore”. With no public, political pressure to do anything, what of the children now?

    3. “Web sites” are not where traders in bad things go. They’re don’t use the normal “web”, there are other protocols that have been around since the net began. Blocking web sites will not stop their activity.

    Overall, in no way does this help anyone, except make politicians look like they’re doing something. I don’t even know why it’s suddenly an issue now, when we’ve had the web for years without any big stories of people stumbling across this stuff.

    That make me think there’s an ulterior motive (isn’t there always with politics) in which case using this “cause” as a stepping stone is extremely cynical, ugly and immoral.

  13. When this scheme has been running for a while, and some politician says, “see, it’s been working really well!” I hope someone has the insight to ask them: if it has been working well, how many children has it saved and how has child porn been curbed?

    That’s the only outcome I see as worthwhile thinking about.

  14. Personally, I am marginally more comfortable with an Interpol black list than with one that reflects Senator Conroy’s, ahem, preferences.

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