Protests Continue Over 'Great Aussie Firewall'

SYDNEY, Australia - Protests continue against the Australian government's plan to block as many as 1,300 websites with an Internet filter that's being called the "Great Aussie Firewall."

According to the Associated Press, opponents are speaking out from all quarters, including consumers, civil rights activists, computer engineers , ISPs, social pundits and politicians.

The Australian government claims the goal is to block prohibited sites, which include those featuring child pornography, extreme violence, or advocating and even instructing in crime, drug use or terrorism.

A live test is slated for this June and the Australian government has invited ISPs to take part. So far, that nation's largest ISP, Telstra BigPond, has declined, though provider iiNet agreed, believing the filter will not work, going as far as calling the government scheme "stupid."

Earlier this month, hundreds gathered in Sydney to protest the government's filtering plans.  One of the biggest issues, opponents say, is a lack of the public information: The Australian government will not name the sites being banned and many are claiming the choices of targeted sites may well be arbitrary.

Australian officials have said free speech is not an issue. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who proposed the filter earlier this year, told AP in an email, "We have laws about the sort of material that is acceptable across all mediums and the Internet is no different. Currently, some material is banned and we are simply seeking to use technology to ensure those bans are working."

Opponents counter that a filter is no guarantee that the prohibited material - whether it's child porn or terrorism dialogues - won't be exchanged through peer-to-peer networks or chats and even emails. To that effect, filters for that are being considered and developed as well.

The filter does have its supporters however, such as Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, who told AP it's "an important safeguard for families worried about their children inadvertently coming across this material on the Net."

The plan must still meet approval from the Australian Parliament and the filter would take a two-tier approach: Step one would find a mandatory filter blocking sites based on an existing blacklist from the Australian Communications Media Authority; Step two would employ an optional filter blocking adult content, based on keywords, which opponents also suggest is "problematic," with some words still blocked, even if the use or context is not questionable.

Also, AP reports that a test of six filters missed 3 to 12 percent of material they should have blocked and prevented access to 1 to 8 percent of non-listed websites in error. Additionally, the most accurate filters slowed browsing speeds up to 86 percent.

Even child advocacy groups are skeptical. Holly Doel-Mackaway of Save the Children told AP, "The filter may not be able to in fact protect children from the core elements of the Internet that they are actually experiencing danger in. The filter should be one small part of an overall comprehensive program to educate children and families about using the Internet."

As previously reported by AVN Online, an analysis piece from Ars Technica stated that because the Australian government isn't going to provide all residents with a computer equipped with filtering software, it will be up to the ISPs to either filter blacklisted URLs through the Domain Name Service, or to use deep-packet inspection to block the content deemed illegal or offensive. Also, residents will be unable to completely opt out of the so-called "Cyber-Safety Plan," first announced in 2007.