Australian Net Filtering Plan

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In one of the worst decisions ever by any government, the current Australian government has decided that it wants to control internet content. They plan not only to force ISPs to make available a "filtered" version of the internet for all home users, but to provide no opt-out from the filtering, just a choice of filters! Here's an attempt to summarise the salient points and the immense ramifications for Australia.
  • Unethical
    • In forcing everyone to be filtered, the government is assuming that we are all criminals who wish to access illegal material. What comes next? Banning travel to countries where illegal material is available?
    • Politicians' disingenuous claims to the public that the "clean feed" protects their children can only cause harm. If parents are less vigilant, lulled into a false sense of security by government misinformation, their children really may be put at risk ... and from far worse things that seeing porn.
    • For ALP candidates such as Anna Burke to have, as recently as the week prior to the election, told those concerned about the proposal that it wouldn't be compulsory and to then change their story after the election is deceitful. The ALP would have received less votes if it had told us about the full extent of this plan before the election and thus has no mandate to proceed.
    • It is hypocritical of our government to criticise the Chinese government for censoring internet access when it plans to implement a similar mechanism here.
    • Senator Conroy has consistently attempted to mislead the public. He is clearly unaware of the democratic concepts of governing for the people and accepting advice from experts, but prefers to try to fabricate press releases supporting his pre-conceived goal, much as the Bush government fabricated the WMD threat and ties to terrorism to support its war on Iraq. He's followed this up by lying to the Senate Estimates Committee. When competent individuals disagree with him publicly, they may find one his advisors trying to put pressure on dissenters to be silenced.
    • After so much political talk about the "Clever Country", this plan is a national embarrassment and right on track to make us the Stupid Country.
  • Unwanted
    • Has anyone suggested that Australia Post be made responsible for controlling what you receive in the mail? I don't know of any proposals for Telstra to become for filtering your phone calls. It is clearly contrary to the operation of all other mass communications systems to hold the ISPs responsible for controlling content on the internet.
    • Filtering secure web pages can only be done by intercepting that secure data. This means that the online banking, stock broking, travel booking, etc, data that we access through the filter could by viewed by staff members at our ISP.
    • By the most optimistic estimate, the existing free Netalert filter is used by 29,000 households, less than 0.4% of the population. (Note that this makes the cost of the previous government's $84.4m filtering package in excess of $2900 per home using it!)
    • According to Internode, "When offered filtering software, 1% of people choose to use it."
    • Optus statements to the press in early 2007 indicated that they had a takeup rate of their filtering of around 2%.
    • When The Age asked readers for their opinion, they received over 150 comments, all but one writer being strongly against the proposal.
  • Already available
    • There are content-filtering ISPs, such as Webshield.
    • There are many packages which can be installed, including the government's Netalert.
  • Technically infeasible
    • With hundreds of new porn sites created per day, a filter can't possibly work reliably.
    • The filters in Europe cover only illegal sites. Finland's list is about 1500 sites, yet there have been other sites added by their authorities which do not contain illegal material. Our government intends to have a filter of all pornography, some tens of millions of sites and growing by hundreds every day, but says that freedom of speech will not be compromised. If the list is over 10,000 times bigger than the "successful" systems in Europe, there's over 10,000 times the chance that mistakes will be made and makes it 10,000 times easier for bureaucrats to censor whatever sites they choose.
    • Not a single product thus tested by the government is capable of filtering any instant messaging, peer-to-peer, newsgroups or custom protocols. (See ACMA report.) Around 2/3 of traffic on the internet is these other protocols.
    • Any web filtering would easily be circumvented, by use of a VPN or Socks proxy or the Tor project or or psiphon or a miriad of other possibilities.
  • Performance crippling
    • The net in Australia will be slowed down to "that of a three-legged dingo dragging a baby up Ayers' Rock".
    • The performance of routers with IPv6 enabled is roughly half of that of the same router without IPv6. Assuming that a filter supports IPv6, which none currently do, the filtering will not only add to the performance degradation that IPv6 itself will bring, but we can expect the filters themselves to slow down further when dealing with 128 bit IP addresses rather than the current 32 bit addresses.
    • The best filter (in terms of avoiding false blocking) tested by the government ("Gamma" in their report) produced an 86% decrease in internet performance when active.
  • Expensive
    • The direct cost to the taxpayer is budgeted to be $125.8M over 4 years.
    • The cost for a fully redundant filtering system for Internode, which has around 2% of the market, has been quoted at around $2M installation + $1M/year thereafter. Inferences drawn from the Government's budget papers indicate an allocation of about $25M to compensate, leaving a shortfall of $75M + $50M/year.
    • The better filters tested by the government incorrectly blocked around 3% of requests, which equates to 3000 errors per second per ISP. "Gamma" had about half that rate, which would still be totally unacceptable. The ISP staffing required to deal with the queries about incorrectly blocked sites will send Australian internet prices through the roof, or support will go down the drain.
    • Large-scale use of software to direct internet traffic via a non-censored feed in another country will increase international bandwidth usage and further reduce performance for all net users in Australia.
    • Staff at an ISP could start copying data from customers' online banking and stock broking sessions to third parties. The resulting large-scale theft of private information and/or money would, if done well, net them millions of dollars, cause instability in the Australian financial system, and force users of secure sites to install circumvention software or stop using the internet for activities which require security.
In summary, the Rudd government has an unreasonable, unethical, incoherent plan to force upon us a product that almost nobody wants, that will wreck internet performance, that will put our privacy and security at risk and that won't actually achieve the stated goal. For this, they expect us to pay an absolute minimum of $350M over 4 years.

On 15/10/08, I emailed my local member of parliament, Anna Burke, asking for her opinion and asking why the Australian Labor Party misled the public. Having seen a comment by a user on Whirlpool that Anna never replies to his email, I phoned her office on 16/10/08. The person I spoke to said that there was no record of my email and maybe their filters discarded it. What appalling irony that politicians who are incapable of even filtering their own email successfully want to filter the whole of the internet.