Telstra’s filter has blocked 84,000 requests


news The nation’s largest telco Telstra has blocked more than 84,000 Internet requests to access sites allegedly containing child pornography since the start of July this year, when it quietly started filtering its customer’s traffic for a blacklist of sites compiled by international policing agency Interpol.

The statistic was revealed in a Senate Estimates hearing yesterday by Neil Gaughan, the national manager of the Australian Federal Police’s High-Tech Crime Operations Centre. The AFP worked closely with Telstra, Optus and the Internet Industry Association to implement the filter earlier on this year. His comments were first reported by iTNews.

“At this stage Telstra is the only ISP that is able to provide us with information in relation to the amount of blocks that are taking place, and from the period of 1 July this year to 15 October there were in excess of 84,000 redirections,” Gaughan told the Senate committee, according to Hansard transcripts.

Customers who visit one of the sites on Interpol’s list will be greeted by an Interpol ‘stop page’ which will explain that the content they have attempted to access is illegal, along with instructions as to how they can challenge Interpol’s ruling. Those who believe their web site has been inadvertently blocked by Interpol are able to ask for a review via the agency’s own website, or will be able to contact the Australian Federal Police, which Telstra has worked closely with on the filter’s implementation.

The limited filtering 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 Government’s wider mandatory filter project is slated to block.

Gaughan described the filtering effort as a “trial”, noting that the first review of the effort would take place in December this year by the Australia/New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency’s Child Protection Committee. The ANZPAA was established in 2007 as a joint initiative of police ministers and commissioners from both countries. Gaughan said the effort so far had been “reasonably successful” and that the AFP had received expressions of interest from a number of other ISPs to be involved in the trial.

Telstra, Optus and Primus had initially agreed to carry out the voluntary filtering initiative, but Primus has since backed away from the proposal and is believed to be yet to make a decision on whether it will implement the IIA scheme. iiNet has praised the scheme but not committed to implementing it, while Internode, Exetel and TPG have all distanced themselves from it.

Gaughan also gave additional details of how the scheme functioned.

Following questions from Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam, the police force member noted that IP addresses of people who accessed sites on the list were not passed on to the AFP by the ISPs — even if they were “repeatedly trying to hit up those links”, as Ludlam put it. “Part of the negotiations, if you like, with the trial was that at this particular stage we would not be forwarded the IP addresses,” said Gaughan. However, he noted there was nothing technically preventing this information being handed over by ISPs in future.

Gaughan took on notice a question from Ludlam seeking more information about the content being blocked — such as a list of categories of kinds of material, without the actual Internet addresses being identified. And he noted the Interpol list was updated weekly.

And Gaughan also disclosed the current budget for high-tech crime within the AFP, which was $55.54 million, with a full-time equivalent workforce of 350. In relation to cybersafety measures, the AFP’s funding was $49.4 million over four years from 2008 to 2012. He noted that when it came to protecting children online, the AFP focuses on education for children through the ThinkUKnow program, and engaging through a coalition group named the Virtual Global Taskforce to tackle child pornography offenders — especially working with criminologists to try and “break the cycle” in this area.

In the hearing, Ludlam questioned the usefulness of the filter approach. “It does not get rid of it though, and it does not stop people going looking for it,” he said. The Senator subsequently questioned Gaughan on the issue of bringing prosecution and rehabilitation measures to bear on child pornography offenders.

To be honest, I’m not sure what this means. Taken in isolation, Telstra’s statistics sound pretty onerous — 84,000 is a lot of requests for very disturbing material. However, before judging whether the IIA’s child pornography filter is a useful tool which could be applied in a broader sense to Australia’s telecommunications sector, we need to know more. Were there any false positives included in that figure, or not included? How many? Did anyone appeal the blocking? Did any site owners complain that they were unjustly blocked?

The 84,000 hits figure has also already been questioned. Telco commentator Michael Wyres pointed out today that the definition of ‘hits’ was somewhat hazy, with a single page load on a web server generating multiple ‘hits’. A more technically correct term used by the Internet publishing industry at the moment is ‘page impressions’.

And above all, what percentage of Telstra’s overall traffic did those 84,000 requests constitute? If it was something like one in a billion percent, for example, is that percentage worth enforcing a national filter system on every Australian, with the potential for scope creep which exists? We need to know more. And I still believe this should be a legislative process, with all the facts debated in open parliament, before it goes ahead to other ISPs.

Image credit: Adrian van Leen, royalty free


  1. What’s the bet all the stuff that was blocked was related to newzbin which is on the UK interpol filter…

  2. With regards to the article’s last sentence:
    I’m wondering whether Telstra has the legal right to block arbitrary web pages in the first place. If we follow this logic then tomorrow our newspapers will not be able to report certain subjects etc – it’s a slippery slope.

  3. They need to say some stupidly high figure like 84,000 though (ie. pick the stat that shows the highest figure), that makes people at large think the filter is actually doing something and working.

    • That’s the bottom line.

      Conroy will latch onto this figure, and use the fact that the average Joe on the street doesn’t understand the technical nuances of this, and proclaim its “overwhelming success”.

      The average Joe will just think, “well, hey, it’s working”…

      It’s not…

      • but it is working – its blocking inadvertent access and disrupts intended access – even if page impressions are less than 84K – that was the aim.

        I don’t think anyone was ever pretending it would solve the problem – nor that a solution exists.

        Furthermore industry paid for it, rather than the govt/taxpayer as was originally planned (I haven’t see Optus/Telstra raise their prices).

        • What’s working? At the current level of transparency and accuracy of reporting, it may be blocking the website of some innocent Queensland dentist for all we know.
          If I was a paying Telstra customer, I would be quite upset at the company deciding to block stuff from me without telling me exactly what it is they are blocking and without giving me a choice about it (but while tying me down with a contract).

          • but you get a interpol block page telling you the page has been blocked, why, and how you can appeal it – so it should be pretty clear – and why would you be upset at your ISP blocking that material?

            we haven’t seen/heard any reports of over blocking

            so they are telling you what they are blocking….you can still access it if you are determined to – so you have a choice – so what’s your problem?

          • so they are telling you what they are blocking….you can still access it if you are determined to – so you have a choice – so what’s your problem?

            The problem is the bit of your post in bold. If people want to access a site, they can easily circumvent the filter and do so.

            In other words, the filter is an expensive piece of technology that does nothing, it’s about as useful as that big button they press to turn the NBN on.

          • Well interpol have blocked pages on a little site called wikipedia in the past. This did result in some poorly implemented filters blocking the entire wikipedia site.

        • It doesn’t block intended access. The cretins intending to access this stuff just bypass the filter altogether, or use a transmission protocol other than HTTP, which is the only protocol the filter is looking at.

          • it wasn’t intended to block people who are dead set intended on accessng this stuff. Even criminal laws haven’t managed to do that – in fact, nothing has done that. So you need to view it in perspective, instead of binary work/doesn’t work terms. It is intended to block inadvertent access and disrupt intended access.

            It was “offered” by Telstra and Optus under their responsibilties under s313(1) of the Telco Act to stave off mandatory filtering. Now it’s up to the other ISPs to implement it or face the legislative cnsequences. It seems a no-brainer to me.

          • The problem is, and has always been, one of an unjustifiable response. No one has actually bothered to collect data on how prevalent the problem of inadvertent exposure is.

            It is my opinion, and likely that of Michael here, that the prevalence of such inadvertent exposure is so low, due to the search nature of the Internet (you have to be looking for something and then further request it in order to access it), that the economics do not stack up.

            It is an illusion of security problem. You don’t spend millions on a new lock for your front door that is completely impenetrable when the burglar is going to come through the window.

          • who said they were spending millions? And by the way – exactly how much is one prevention of access to that sort of material worth to you – nothing, one cent, one dollar, one million dollars? That way you can work out exactly how much you think it should cost.

          • Ron – who said it would cost millions?

            They did.

            $44.5m to implement initially, and some millions of dollars per year to maintain it.


            As for the “value” of the money – I’d rather they spent the money employing more AFP agents to hunt down the producers of this material and deal with them appropriately.

            Hiding – (or limply trying to hide) – this material doesn’t stop it from being produced. It doesn’t stop a kid somewhere in the world from being abused so that it can be produced.

            It’s like putting a tarp up around a horse being put down at a race track. We don’t see it, but it’s still happening, and we still know what is happening.

            The filter is a tarpaulin, nothing more.

          • that was two and half years ago when the government was going to pay for. Now; industry is paying for it – so it doesn’t cost millions. Telstra and Optus have actually implemented this at a negligble cost.

          • so given the govt isn’t spending anything on it, Michael, your saying that Optus and Telstra should give the money they are spending on this to the AFP.

            So your problem is with Telstra and Optus – yes?

          • If you have information that the government is planning to cease the national mandatory policy, please enlighten us.

            Otherwise, it’s perfectly relevant. Don’t think for a moment that the government doesn’t have it’s finger in this “voluntary” plan.

          • well of course they do – they threatened to legislate because self-regulation wasn’t working and industry changed its tune. That’s government’s role isn’t it. Arguably, a pretty good outcome for the taxpayer.

          • You act as if the mandatory filter plan is off the shelf. This “voluntary” filter is a political stunt to generate these kind of figures to make their mandatory plan appear to do something that it won’t.

            You’re simplifying it down to a “black and white” argument, and it’s far more complicated that that. They are many shades of grey.

          • i reckon if all ISPs did what Optus/Telstra are doing it would be off the shelf.

            Why would Telstra/Optus be engaging in a “political stunt” to have something forced upon them which is more onerous than what they’re now doing?

            They’re doing this to avoid what was originally proposed and they are now holding it up to be successful and therefore sufficient. It’s fairly plain to see.

          • Haha. Okay then.

            You mean Telstra and Optus who are getting a big chunk of coin for agreeing to be part of the NBN project?

            Yeah, no, they wouldn’t have any incentive at all to play ball with the government.

            (WARNING: previous sentence may contain traces of sarcasm).

      • hmm – I wasn’t really taking into account any conspiracy type theories but in any case, I don’t think they are playing ball – they’re offering a middle “solution” which is less onerous (including cheaper) that what the Govt was going to legislate.

  4. The issue here is the Government, the AFP and vested stakeholders have secrecy and non-disclosure on their side. Interpol run a completely non transparent system of blocking and make no apologies for it. The parties above know this and can confidently sprout their inflated figure of 84,000 knowing full well that they will most likely never have to justify it with actual evidence.

    84,000 is just a meaningless number until it’s substantiated. It is though, a catalyst for propaganda for proponents such as Conroy and the ACL. As usual the average Joe with lack of understanding will swallow the dribble, hook line and sinker.

    It’s like a filter vendor marketing his new censor box product claiming it blocked 50 million illegal pages in a trial without actually defining what illegal is, how many participants took part or the time frame in which the trial was conducted.

    It’s sad but as Michael has stated above – the 84,000 will be knowingly used by those in power to convince the uneducated it’s working. The kicker is those doing the convincing know it’s not working themselves. Politics will be politics. It’s not about who is lying or telling the truth – it’s about how much bullshit you can spin to make your side more believable.

  5. There are a couple of things here that we really need to come to terms with. Firstly we don’t know how many of the references to the “Stop” were genuine attempts to access the particular domain that was blocked. A percentage would have been crawlers from indexing sites such as Google. A percentage could have been people trying to access legal pages a second or third time.

    If you look at the Interpol web site and how this filter operates there are two thing stand out.

    1. It blocks Domains not URLs and they freely admit that it may over block.

    2. You will also find that once an offending image(s) have been removed if there is anything else on the domain that is illegal in a particular country then the domain will still be blocked. In Australia prohibited content is illegal so I assume it would be blocked even if the “worst of the worst” was removed.

    I therefor have serious doubts about the 84,000 re-directions being all attempts to access Child Abuse material., Considering the only report on the number of sites I have seen was during an investigation by one of the European Parliaments and as I recall there were less than 300 it seems that either 84,000 is bloody ridiculous.or we are a nation of perverts.

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