For transparency's sake, ISP filter goes under review

ISPs agree to start filtering URLs

Last Friday, Senator Stephen Conroy issued a statement saying mandatory ISP filtering will not be imposed until a review of Refused Classification (RC) content is completed first – a big step forward in the transparency of any URL blacklist.

Recently, TechWorld reported some of the measures the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – the federal government department responsible for determining RC content, among other things – could take to improve the transparency of an Internet filtering mechanism.

This is important because, as Senator Conroy has said himself in the past, there is a very real possibility of RC “creep” when dealing with a fast-paced medium like the Web.

Like most civilised people, I don’t have a problem with restrictions on obscene content, but I do have a problem when the “net” for obscene content starts catching legitimate content as well.

No system is perfect, but when it has the potential to impact a large proportion of the population at the very least it should be transparent and accountable.

The TechWorld article received quite a lot of fiery debate over how the government should be more transparent with RC content in the Internet in addition to the usual complaints about whether such an idea should even be attempted at all.

One reader said: “How does keeping the blacklist of websites secret have any credibility? There is a list of banned books [and] movies so why are we treating the Internet differently yet, at the same time, talk about treating internet content the same as other physical media?”

To that Conroy said the RC content list of URLs provides direct access to child abuse material so it cannot be published the way a list of prohibited book titles or movies can be.

And TechWorld agrees: it doesn’t make sense to publish a list of blocked URLs, but it does make sense to make the compilation of any such list more transparent and accountable.

In the event of any “false positive” an accountable ISP filtering scheme will have mechanisms in place to quickly repeal it.

“The public needs to have confidence that the URLs on the list, and the process by which they get there, is independent, rigorous, free from interference or influence and enables content and site owners access to appropriate review mechanisms,” Conroy said.

For a list of transparency measures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability, see the DBCDE Web site.

Not least among them is the option of “clear avenues for appeal of classification decisions”.

Senator Conroy said some sections of the community have expressed concern about whether the range of material included in the RC category reflects “current community standards” and thus the government recommends a review of the RC classification “be conducted at the earliest opportunity”.

“As the government’s mandatory ISP filtering policy is underpinned by the strength of our classification system, the legal obligation to commence mandatory ISP filtering will not be imposed until the review is completed,” he said.

Ready or not, here is the filter

The government may admit RC content needs further review, but that didn’t stop it from crowing about three of the nation’s largest ISPs agreeing to block child abuse material with a URL list supplied by ACMA.

Senator Conroy described the move as a “socially responsible approach” taken by Australia’s largest ISPs, which account for around 70 per cent of Internet users in the country.

“I encourage other Australian ISPs to follow the example of these ISPs, as well as the large number of ISPs in other western democracies, who already block this abhorrent content,” he said.

Again, I see no problem with blocking such obscene content, but if the list given to the ISPs is anything like the leaked blacklist, there could be quite a few unhappy campers on the Web right now.

According to Conroy’s office, URLs of child abuse imagery will be obtained from lists maintained by organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation. These will also be placed on the ACMA list that ISP’s have agreed to block, “following a detailed assessment by the ACMA of the processes used compile those lists”.

With the list in their possession voluntarily, it’s now up to the ISPs to exercise discretion as to what is worth blocking and what is an obvious error.

Let’s hope the government and its RC review program comes a similar conclusion.

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is rodney_gedda@idg.com.au. Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU

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