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.