news The nation’s peak ISP representative body today acknowledged it did not know which Australian ISPs had signed up to implement the limited Internet filtering initiative which it developed six months ago, with the scheme passing out of its remit and into the control of the Australian Federal Police.
The initiative was proposed by the Internet Industry Association in late July this year, as a voluntary code of practice that would see ISPs block a list of a “worst of the worst” list of child pornography sites generated by international policing agency Interpol and overseen by the Australian Federal Police. It has been seen as a more moderate industry approach developed in reaction to the Federal Government’s much more comprehensive filter scheme.
At the time, although the IIA predicted that most ISPs would be filtering by the end of 2011, only three ISPs signed up to implement the filter: Telstra, Optus and a smaller ISP named CyberOne. However, last week, the AFP revealed in a delayed response to a Senate Estimates question in October that two more ISPs had signed up to implement the scheme, to make a total of five.
A number of major ISPs have been contacted by Delimiter today to request confirmation on whether they are participating in the scheme, as it is not yet clear who the new ISPs to start filtering are.
Speaking via telephone this afternoon, IIA chairman Bruce Linn said he was “not aware” of who the other two ISPs participating in the filtering scheme were. “I have to say, I don’t know who the other two are,” he said. Linn said it had been a joint initiative (between the ISPs, the IIA and the AFP) to develop the filtering scheme, but it was now “a law enforcement issue” in terms of which ISPs implemented the filter.
The mechanism for ISPs to implement the scheme is that ISPs speak to the AFP directly about it. Following their pre-consent, the AFP will then issue them with a notice under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act which requires them to filter certain content from reaching their users. Linn said he was not aware that any of the IIA’s members had received section 313 requests from the AFP regarding filtering.
The AFP this morning declined to reveal which ISPs had signed up to implement the scheme, stating that as it was voluntary for ISPs, it was up to the ISPs themselves to announce their participation in the trial. However, participation in the trial is not voluntary for customers of ISPs, whose Internet connections will be filtered without their knowledge.
In late October, Delimiter filed several Freedom of Information requests with the AFP and the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy regarding the filtering scheme; seeking communications between those organisations and Telstra and Optus regarding the filter. However, both organisations have delayed the release of the information, citing the need to more closely examine the documents and consult with third parties before the information is released.
Today, Linn initially said he didn’t believe it was the IIA’s responsibility to make a judgement on whether the filtering scheme contained sufficient transparency and accountability controls.
“It’s a police process,” he said. “Law enforcement and transparency are always difficult issues because of the nature of the beast.”
However, when pressed, he acknowledged that as the IIA understood the process, it believed there were “appropriate controls in place”. “We believe and we are satisfied that in this case there are sufficient controls in place,” he said.
Some civil libertarians have raised the issue of scope creep and whether the section 313 process could be used by the AFP to request that other forms of content illegal in Australia — such as detailed instruction in crime or even information about euthanasia — to also be blacklisted by the AFP. It has been speculated that this could lead to a defacto scheme similar to the Federal Government’s more comprehensive filter scheme, which does not currently have the parliamentary support to become law — although it remains Labor policy.
Linn said the current filtering scheme was “not talking about ISPs implementing censorship schemes”. “It’s not a censorship issue; it’s a legal issue,” he said. “I don’t believe the ISPs have any desire or mandate to be involved in what you might call scope creep.” The IIA chief said the issue of extending the filter scheme was a question that would have to be asked of the Government, due to its policy setting role.
There was “not much point in speculating at this point in time” about what the IIA’s response would be if an ISP received a section 313 request to filter material not related to the Interpol list, he said. “We haven’t seen anything like that to date. We would have to see that.” However, he acknowledged that ISPs would be required to comply with whatever “the law of the land” was — as enforced “by the AFP or whatever the appropriate law enforcement agency is.”
In general, Linn defended the filtering scheme.
“The ISP community and the IIA has done its level best to get a sensible outcome that satisfies the government’s concern to remove the worst of illegal material, while preserving the public’s right to access information freely,” he said, noting the IIA believed its Interpol framework would be the best solution globally to the issue of accessing child pornography online.
In addition, Linn stressed the Interpol filter scheme was “not in the same boat” as the filtering policy which the Labor Federal Government has promulgated in the past. “Filtering in general is a difficult and generally undesirable thing to apply to the Internet,” he said. “We don’t support filtering and never have.”
Opinion/analysis to follow in a separate article.