Australia Struggles to Control the Internet

SYDNEY—Some recent stories out of Australian cast light onto why the country is experiecing difficulties controlling the flow of digital content to its citizens. Despite the government's warnings over the years that it intends to wield a heavy hand with respect to the accessibility of illegal (child porn) and undesirable (hardcore porn) digital content, it is becoming increasingly clear that such level of control will be easier said than done.

This morning, Optus, Australia's second largest telco, confirmed recent rumors that the voluntary filtering technology it is rolling out in the upcoming weeks can be easily circumvented by users.

In response to a question whether a work-around to the Uptus filer was possible by simply using a different DNS server than the default setting on the user's PC, a company spokesperson said, “That’s correct. It’s a feature of the Interpol list.”

According to Delimiter," Along with Telstra, Optus has pledged to implement a voluntary filtering framework developed by the ISP industry’s peak representative body, the Internet Industry Association. The filter, which is being seen as a more moderate industry approach developed in reaction to the Federal Government’s much more comprehensive filter scheme, will see the ISPs block a 'worst of the worst' list of child pornography sites generated by international police agency Interpol."

The ease of circumvention led a critic of the plan, Electronic Frontiers Association spokesperson Stephen Collins, to wonder why the filter was being unveiled in the first place. “With such a trivial circumvention, Optus’ implementation of this block list is worse than ineffective, it’s also misleading on a grand scale,” he said, adding, "Nobody will be protected from criminals by this, and worse, for those customers who believe they are protected, their kids or anyone else using their internet connection will bypass this with less than 30 seconds effort. Optus should be ashamed of themselves; first for implementing this list and trying to have their customers believe it would work and second for doing such a half-baked job."

Sister telco Telstra's filter went live last week, but, when queried, the ISP was less forthcoming than Optus about its effectiveness. “We do not intend to explain how motivated people with technical skills can access child abuse content by circumventing blocking of the Interpol worst of list,” a spokesperson said this morning. “This would undermine our efforts to reduce the incidence of victims being publicly identified in Australia.”

Meanwhile, as the country works towards the development of a national broadband network (NBN) that would bring high-speed internet access to every area of the country, panelists at a recent Australian Computer Society (ACS) forum in Sydney expressed te opinion that perhaps the major driver of consumer adoption of the network will be pornography, and not, as the federal government has been extolling, e-health and government agency services.

"The single most important factor is the porn factor because pornography has always been at the cutting edge of technology," said Jennifer Wilson, director of The Project Factory, a Sydney-based producer of digital content. "If we cannot get porn on the NBN than we will have trouble getting consumer acceptance and uptake."

According to Computer World, "Independent telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde, agreed with Wilson's assessments, stating that the adult industry had always been a driver of new technology."

The problem, of course, if that the NBN is government owned, and the government is not inclined to allow unfettered access to adult content, even for adults. In late May, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy once again reiterated his support for mandatory filtering at the ISP level, something the government has been advocating for several years, and to which Electronic Frontiers Australia also is vehemently opposed.

However, one of the arguments against the government plan used by the organization was that one of its intended purposes—to make access to child porn more difficult—was no longer necessarily because of the rollout of the voluntary ISP filtering plan by Optus, Telstra and Primus. The news that their filtering can be so easily compromised will probably reinforce the conviction of the supporters of the government's mandatory plan that their method is necessary.

But the NBN has its own child porn issues. In March, the Australian Federal Police told a government panel that planned services by the NBN would make it harder for them to track suspected downloaders of child pornography.

'Due to there being a large number of service providers currently and emerging in the telecommunications industry, this has the potential to increase the difficulty for law enforcement to obtain telecommunications data,'' an AFP spokeswoman said, citing "bundling" offers that allow people to purchase TV, phone and internet services under one account. Though such services are widespread in the United States, the practice is still apparently viewed with suspicion by some Australian politicians.

"One of the great challenges is going to be to come to terms with the anonymity that comes with the NBN. It will be a challenge for both the child protection units and the network of the global police agencies,'' said Senator Bill Heffernan. ''There will be no need to have the details of who you rang, and when you rang and what you downloaded, because there will be just a fee and you'll do whatever you like for that fee … That will be fraught with danger in coming to terms with what is a flourishing child porn business.''