For about 18 months now, the Australian government has been planning to spend over A$40 million on a compulsory national Internet filter. This filter seems to have come about as a result of a few very conservative and naive people talking into the ear of Stephen Conroy, the Federal Minister for Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy. The Minister claims that the purpose of the filter will be to protect all Australians, particularly young children, from material that is "not suitable in a civilized society".
While there may be some merit to this plan in some extreme cases, this is a good example where the theory is one thing but the implementation will be a complete disaster and cause more harm than good.
There are many flaws in this implementation. It will not only block access to child sexual abuse material, but also information on euthanasia and anorexia, detailed information about how to use drugs or commit crimes, controversial movies and books and many computer games. This may sound fair enough, but it seems the government wants to produce the blacklist themselves, and keep this list hidden from the public.
And then there are the technical implementation issues. The filter will cost an enormous amount of money to implement & maintain. There are claims that it will slow down Internet access and/or cost more for users, but that remains to be seen. But the fact remains that it will not be successful at stopping people from bypassing the filter relatively easily. In fact, a computer help desk business in Newcastle, NSW has recently conducted a training session on behalf of a euthanasia advocacy group to around 70 senior citizens about the filter and how to get around it. Under the government's policy it will not be an offence to circumvent the filtering measures or to show someone how to circumvent it.
It won't stop the distribution of questionable material through email, chat rooms and file sharing networks, either. And it will have virtually no impact the distribution of malware and cybercrime activities.
This plan has been condemned by a large percentage of the public. A 2009 survey showed that 92.6% of Australian net users do not support the idea of manditory Internet filtering, while 7.4% support it. It has also been condemned by the opposition party of the government (well, that's not really surprising…), ISPs, media and censorship experts, civil liberty groups and even child protection groups such as Save The Children Australia. In the last few days even the US State Department and Google have expressed concerns about the filter, citing an overly heavy-handed restriction of civilian's freedom of expression.
Now, I'm not for a minute supporting any and all material found on the Internet. There is material on the Internet that I believe is abhorrent and I don't believe should be propagated throughout society. But I am a full grown adult and can make my own decisions on what is offensive and what is not. Euthanasia, is a very good example of a subject that good people have an opinion on – with often strong but opposing points of view. Which point of view is correct? Should the government decide for us and block any information that supports the point of view that they disagree with? I don't believe so.
Most of the opponents to this plan claim that the implementation of a nationwide Internet filter will be costly and largely ineffective – not to mention a major threat to civil liberties. They support the use of parental control type functionality in each home where children's access to the Internet may be controlled and managed by their parents.
As a spokesperson for Save The Children Australia stated "We're concerned that the scheme really doesn't provide education for children or families or equip them to be aware of how to use the Internet well. We believe it's really better to teach children so that they have the ability to recognize and steer clear of inappropriate online content for themselves."
I couldn't have said it better myself!
Senior Cybercrime Research Analyst
Author ESET Research, ESET