news The Australian Federal Police has revealed that its limited mandatory ISP filtering scheme based on a list of offensive sites supplied by Interpol has not yet been taken up by most of Australia’s ISPs, with only Telstra and Optus having implemented the filter so far and a further “large ISP” having flat out refused to comply with the project.
In November last year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy formally dumped the Government’s highly controversial mandatory Internet filtering scheme, instead throwing his support behind a much more limited scheme which sees Australian ISPs voluntarily implementing a much more limited filter which Telstra, Optus and one or two other ISPs were believed to have already implemented. Vodafone is also believed to be implementing the filter, and the process is also believed to be under way at other ISPs such as iiNet.
The ‘voluntary’ filter only blocks a set of sites which international policing agency Interpol has verified contain “worst of the worst” child pornography — not the wider Refused Classification category of content which Conroy’s original filter had dealt with. The instrument through which the ISPs are blocking the Interpol list of sites 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. The AFP has issued such notices to Telstra and Optus to ask them to filter the Interpol blacklist of sites.
However, new documents recently released to the Greens have cast fresh doubts about industry uptake of the scheme.
On 11 February, Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam filed an extensive list of questions to the Minister for Home Affairs with respect to the scheme. The Government recently filed a complete set of answers to Ludlam’s questions. While most of the answers provided information already known, a document consisting of a review of the Interpol filtering scheme was also tabled. You can see the full document here in PDF format.
The AFP’s review of the scheme notes that two large ISPs, Telstra and Optus, continued to actively block the Interpol list. One network gateway manufacturer was incorporating the filter capability into their product, which was being utilised by customers, one small ISP was no longer blocking the list as it had been bought by another ISP, and two large ISPs continued technical preparations to activate the filter, with “both anticipating commencement by early February 2013”. Additionally, Norfolk Island Telecom also plans to implement the filter, although it is not required to do so.
However, the AFP noted, one medium-sized ISP had not responded to its advances at all, and “one large ISP has refused to comply with a Section 313 Notice”, with the matter being referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority for “adjudication”.
The AFP noted that as at 9 November 2012, when Conroy made his announcement supporting the scheme, some eight ISPs had received Section 313 notices requesting that they implement the filter, while a further 13 received notices from the AFP following that date. According to figures the AFP cited from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 81 ISPs operating in Australia with more than 1,000 customers.
As it has previously, the AFP declined to release the names of any of the ISPs concerned, as the agency claimed it “would prejudice ongoing law enforcement action and may lead to offenders moving to ISPs which are currently not participating”.
In addition, the agency claimed, disclosure of the names of the participating ISPs might have a substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of the AFP and would be “contrary to the public interest”.
However, it is possible to speculate on which ISPs are cooperating with the AFP on the filter and which are not. Out of Australia’s major ISPs, Telstra and Optus have already implemented the filter and Vodafone and iiNet are known to be working on the technical implementation of it. Another major player, M2 Telecommunications, has only recently become large enough to be described as a “large ISP”, through the acquisitions of smaller players such as Primus and Dodo.
Of the remaining ISPs of substantial size, TPG is the largest. Alongside Internode, now part of iiNet, TPG was one of several ISPs which Communications Minister Stephen Conroy publicly stated in May 2011 had already refused at that stage to implement the Interpol filter.
In July that year, TPG repeated its comments. At the time, a spokeswoman for the ISP told the AustralianIT: “Whilst TPG abhors (child) abuse of any kind, we believe that internet service providers should best let the question of censorship or filtering be determined by a suitable political process leading, if appropriate, to law.”
The other sizable ISP to have rejected the Interpol filter is mid-sized ISP Exetel. In July 2011, the company’s then-chief executive John Linton, who has since unfortunately passed away, said his company would do “whatever the law requires it to do”. “As far as I know, subject to correction, Australian law not only does not require Exetel to ban any IP address without a Federal warrant and should we do so would expose Exetel to action by people who are might claim to be inconvenienced by such action(s),” he said.
It’s not the first time Linton has opposed filtering initiatives. In November 2008, as the debate around the Federal Government’s much wider mandatory internet filtering scheme was gaining full force, Linton wrote a harshly satirical article about the initiative, noting that his company had been invited to “the fourth Reich’s official sub-site where we could find the details of how to participate in Herr Krudd’s and Obersturmfuhrer Conroy’s scheme to purge the Fatherland of the filth emanating from the diseased brains of the untermenscen”.
“… is that the sound of a heavy military truck screeching to a halt and the sound of jackboots on the drive?” Linton added at the time.
Delimiter has requested comment from TPG and the ACMA regarding the Interpol filter issue and will add in any comment received to this article.
Since Telstra and Optus implemented the Interpol filtering scheme in mid-2011, there have been no known public complaints about the system and no sites known to have been wrongfully added to the Interpol list apart from known child abuse sites. In addition, users of both ISPs have not complained publicly about speed issues with respect to the Internet filtering system. However, some segements of the community are still concerned about specific details of the Interpol filtering scheme.
For example, when Telstra and Optus implemented the Interpol filter, neither explicitly communicated with customers to let them know that the scheme was in operation and that their Internet connections were actively blocking a small list of sites; and neither is known to have updated their terms of service with customers.
In addition, in contrast with the mandatory Internet filtering policy (which was to have been administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority) there is currently no known civilian oversight of the scheme, which is administered by the Australian Federal Police and international policing agency Interpol, apart from questions which parliamentarians may put to the Federal Police.
Furthermore, 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 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, for example — were believed to be included as part of the blacklist associated with the Federal Government’s much wider mandatory filtering policy. It is not clear what safeguards exist to prevent the Interpol filtering scheme being extended by the Australian Federal Police to include such extra categories of content.
The current attitudes of ISPs apart from Telstra and Optus towards the Interpol filtering scheme are also currently unknown, with it being unclear whether they would implement the scheme if the Australian Federal Police issued them with a request to do so. In 2011, ISPs such as TPG and Exetel said right out that they would reject such an attempt, while others such as iiNet and Internode said they were unclear as to the specifics of the situation.
The efficacy of the Interpol filter has also been publicly questioned. Optus has admitted that users would be able to defeat its implementation of the Interpol filter merely by changing the DNS settings on their PC. And information released under Freedom of Information laws by the AFP late last year shows as time went on, less and less requests were made by Telstra customers to access child abuse material on the list — presumably, as Telstra customers attempting to access the offensive material became aware that the telco had implemented a filtering system to block the requests.
For the first five weeks it operated, from 1 July through to 7 August 2011, Telstra’s filter blocked a total of 52,013 requests to access child abuse materials online, with 10,402 average requests per week. Average requests per day were 1,405, with the highest day recorded seeing 2,443 requests blocked and the lowest seeing 915 blocked.
However, over the succeeding weeks through to mid-October 2011, fewer and fewer requests were made. In the week commencing 13 August, 8,649 requests were made, but by September the figure was down to between 1,193 and 3,452 requests per week, and in the week beginning 15 October, just 989 requests were made — which had previously been close to the lowest requests received in one day, in the filter’s first month of operation. In the period from mid-September to mid-October 2011, the lowest day saw just 99 requests made by Telstra customers to access the blocked material.
Delimiter has encouraged the Minister to hold an open press conference on the issue to take questions from the media, as well as to issue a discussion paper on the issue which would allow the public to comment on the scheme formally.
The striking thing which has emerged from the documentation and responses to questions on notice which the AFP has released recently is that its Interpol filter scheme appears to being broadly ignored by the ISP industry. By its own admission, the AFP has contacted some 22 sizable ISPs and requested that they comply with Section 313 notices under the Telecommunications Act to begin filtering Interpol’s ‘worst of the worst’ list of child abuse sites.
In reaction, only two ISPs — Telstra and Optus — have complied, while two other ISPs have begun technical preparations. The vast majority of the other ISPs appear to have ignored the AFP’s request, while one “large ISP” has flat out refused to implement the system. And, of course, we already know, courtesy of Optus, that the Internet filter can be readily bypassed by merely changing the DNS server settings on your PC.
Hardly the raging success which the AFP and the Internet Industry Association, which developed the scheme in the first place, would have liked the Interpol filter to be.