Voluntary ISP filter attracts global attention


update The continued support by several of Australia’s largest internet service providers for a voluntary version of the Federal Government’s mandatory ISP filtering scheme has attracted the ire of the world’s largest digital rights group, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

This week, Telstra and Optus reiterated that they were still planning to start filtering their customers’ traffic for a list of internet addresses provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority which it has deemed to contain child pornography. The initiative is a stop-gap measure agreed to by ISPs and the Federal Government in mid-2010 while a review is carried out into the Refused Classification category of content which the wider mandatory filter will block.

Another major ISP, Primus, is also planning to implement the voluntary filtering scheme.

However, in an article posted overnight, global digital rights lobby group the Electronic Frontiers Foundation strongly objected to the voluntary filter, noting that the ISPs’ move came after “numerous failed attempts” to set up what the EFF described as “a centralised filtering plan”. The problems with the stop-gap plan, EFF director for international freedom of expression Jillian C. York wrote, were numerous.

For starters, York said there was no transparency in the selection of the internet addresses to be blacklisted, and no accountability from the regulatory bodies creating the blacklists. “The “reputable international organizations” providing child abuse URLs have not been named, but may include the Internet Watch Foundation, a UK-based organisation that in 2008 advised UK ISPs to block a Wikipedia page containing an album cover from the 1970s that they deemed might be illegal,” wrote York.

In addition, the activist pointed out that ACMA had already appeared to suffer false positives with its list, with the website of a Queensland-based dentist having been included on what appeared to be a leaked copy of the list in 2009 — as well as “numerous other sites unrelated to child sexual abuse or illegal pornography”.

Furthermore, York stated that filter did little to curb the trade of child pornography in practice, with much of the material being trafficked across peer to peer and virtual private networks. “Filtering it from the World Wide Web may simply push it further underground,” she wrote.

Other problems were also manifest.

There appeared to be no appeals process embedded in the scheme, according to York, and the EFF director believed the introduction of such a filter set a precedent for the ISPs concerned to filter more sites in the future if the ACMA requested it. “If the ACMA were to make the decision that sites deemed “indecent” or politically controversial–for example–should be off-limits, would the ISPs comply?” she asked?

The wider mandatory filter policy does contain a number of mechanisms designed to address some of the concerns which York has raised. For example, that policy will feature an annual review of content on the ‘blacklist’, avenues for appeal of classification decisions and the use of a standardised block page to be used by ISPs.

This afternoon, the Office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy issued a statement noting that it was the Government’s aim that as many of the accountability and transparency measures as possible (“those that can apply without the passing of legislation”) would be available to the ISPs to incorporate into their voluntary processes. “We are still working through the details of the voluntary arrangements with the ISPs and details have not yet been finalised,” the statement added.

Image credit: NASA, Creative Commons


  1. As soon as my contract is over with Telstra I’m going to be looking at going elsewhere.

    If Telstra ask me why I will say this is why.


  2. Whilst we’ve known Telstra, Optus and Primus were going to do this for nearly a year now I’ve always maintained I’ll be leaving Telstra as soon as I’m off contract.

    Interestingly – though – it is incredible difficult to find ANY reference on the Telstra website itself about this very topic.

    This gives credence to the fact that they are just plain dishonest in their business practices. They just do things without informing their customers.

  3. “I’ll be leaving Telstra as soon as I’m off contract”

    I should think the introduction of the filter is such a big change to the ToS that you signed up to you would be entitled to exit your contract without penalty.

    This might one for the TIO.

      • I think we internet folk talked about it when this was first announced and most ISPs already have a clause to monitor data traffic for network optimization. Which runs afoul of the Telecommunications Intercept Act already but at the time, OzLog was big and AGD assured us that just like US telcos, if anything bad was being done in the name of national security those big companies will be pardoned retrospectively.

        • most ISPs already have a clause to monitor data traffic for network optimization

          I think this should be clarified.

          When it comes to network optimisation specific user traffic is not being monitored, what is being monitored is the overall traffic (and congestion) on the network, whether it be backbone links, international links, etc.

          Based on that information and other predicted increases, ie. new areas being placed onto the network, etc, capacity planning can be done.

          So really, don’t confuse network monitoring for network optimisation with specific monitoring of customer traffic, the former is perfectly legal and is required for the telcos to run their networks, the later is (in most normal circumstances) illegal and a breach of the telco act.

  4. Hey everyone, just a brief note to point out that this article has been updated with comment from Minister Conroy’s office — down the bottom of the piece etc.

    • Hey Renai, can I suggest that when you make ‘Updates’ to articles that you make it a little more obvious what the update is. Perhaps just having the word ‘Update’ in bold before the additional information would suffice.

      In relation to the content of the article, It seems like the Voluntary for ISP’s/Mandatory for customers filter is still a fair while a way and the article on news.com.au was just rehashing the old planned date.

      • No worries, I actually agree. I have been fairly constrained by the need to fit a certain form, but shortly I expect that a few restrictions on Delimiter to be eased :) As for the News.com.au articles — yes, you’re right, we’ve known about the “mid-2011” date for some time now. However I think this is a good opportunity to bring it up again. I have been fairly surprised by the lack of preparation and discussion by the ISPs here — I honestly think Telstra, Optus and Primus are right now trying to pretend they never signed up for this, and are kinda trying to sweep it into the back corner a little bit.

        Will be interesting to see what I can dig up next week about what’s going on.

        • ‘Will be interesting to see what I can dig up next week about what’s going on.’
          I look forward to it.
          At least I can trust that you will actually do some digging although I don’t expect you will have much luck getting an honest response.

          • Well, I can already predict what the carriers will say.

            Telstra will confirm the plans are going ahead, and emphasise it is working with the government on the matter, but won’t say anything else. Optus will basically say the same thing, but with much less detail. Primus will probably be more forthcoming, but they will probably be behind the other telcos in terms of technically implementing the system, and of course they’re too small to really matter in any case.

            What I will find out behind the scenes is that everybody is trying to gradually back away from this issue; trying to look like they are progressing the government’s wishes without actually doing much to do so. You see this sort of thing quite a bit ;)

        • Optus aren’t being that secretive about it – there is an internal marketing campaign about it, and it has spent time above the fold on the front page of their intranet home page. I don’t know what they are doing from an external marketing POV/

          • I think you should provide C a copy of photoshop, they’ll need it since the “internal marketing campaign” doesn’t exist.

          • You haven’t seen the Meerkat with the eraser? It’s been on the home page as well as on the screens around campus, and in the lift wells of B & C.

          • Oh – secondly, there was separate article on the home page talking about Optus’ filtering stance. Irrespective of whether you support their view or not (and personally, I don’t), it’s a little contrary to say that it didn’t exist.


          • You said an “internal marketing campaign” and that it was on their “intranet home page”, so naturally we assumed you’re talking about an internal website.

            Are you saying the ad was on their public internet site?

          • Oh wait, you are talking about internal stuff… not everybody works at Optus you know ;-)

          • Unfortunately yes C is talking about internal stuff.

            C is really treading a fine line, it’s not exactly company policy (and that’s the policy of just about every company, not just Optus) to say “this is what the company is doing internally”. It’s verging on a confidentiality breach.

          • Ok, there are 6 buildings on the campus, I don’t work in B or C, nor do I go anywhere them.
            The Meerkat posters (and others similar) are informational, they aren’t marketing,
            And I can’t find anything about the filter on the intranet, excluding information relating to when the original opt-out region based trial was conducted.

            I’ll take back saying it didn’t exist because it could easily have been removed, but I’ll stick by saying there is no internal marketing for the filter.

          • And I’m happy to agree that it’s informational. I wasn’t implying that Optus were attempting to change peoples view – rather – they are stating their view, and explaining why they are involved in filtering. (Bear in mind also that it’s Optus view, not mine – I happen to be a member of EFA for this very reason).

            My other observation about ‘home page’? You’re right – I was referring to the internal home page rather than optus.com.au. Apologies for my lack of precision there.

            As to someones assertion that my comments are a breach of confidentiality – you’re funny! I don’t know the way that Optus handles this stuff, but I reckon that posting something to the intranet, in the lift wells, and on big screens in all the common areas, I’d hardly consider any of those things as confidential – you’ve just shown it to over 6,000 people and all the visitors on site! The idea behind confidential is that you don’t tell people.


          • At the company I work, everything is confidential, unless explicitly released to the public, even if there’s posters around campus, internal emails sent to everybody on staff, or messages prominently displayed on the company intranet. We have a lot more than 6,000 employees as well.

  5. What is to keep such systems from blacklisting site that are critical of government or these advisory groups. Who’s going to stop sites being added that make people in positions of influence look bad, or contain ideas that those people might not agree with. If such sites do “mistakenly” get added who’s going to get them removed and what will the process be to do so?

    Filtering of information already happens quite a bit so that it becomes the case that it’s not that the information isn’t available its just that the healthy controversial bits that help societies regulate themselves get filtered out and instead people get whatever “gravy” and “filth” the mass media deems appropriate to shovel into your minds. If the internet succumbs to that type of information filter humanity is in for a nasty stroll down information isles filled with disinformation, and propaganda. Only the people won’t be able to discern that because information that would contradict it will be filtered out to “protect” you.

    Australians should be pissed. Who runs your country down there? Is it the citizens or the government? They’ve already taken your guns, what are you going to let them do next?

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