Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Australian firewall trials start

Digital Planet
Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

Surfing girl (BBC)
The plan should protect children, but will it work?

The Australian government is due to start a series of field trials this month in order to filter websites that are harmful to children.

The 'cyber-safety plan', spearheaded by Australia's Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy, will cost around AUS$126m (55m) and will be implemented over a period of four years.

However, opinion is sharply divided about how well the system will work, according to Radio New Zealand's Technology commentator Simon Morton who looked into the issue for the BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

Many from the internet industry and freedom of speech groups fear that if the filtering system is implemented, then other illegal content as well as material the government deems inappropriate could be added and blocked in the future.

A blacklist

"This would see the government establishing a blacklist of websites it deems harmful and ISPs providing a clean feed of the internet," said Mr Morton.

"The plan has support from groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, the Australian Family Association and Child Wise, a child protection charity working in Australia and the Pacific to prevent child abuse," he added.

Mr Morton also spoke to the chief executive of Child Wise Bernadette McMenamin, who strongly feels that the internet needs to be regulated.

Ms McMenamin notes that the public is divided among those who would like the internet left alone, and those "that say let's try some sort of filtering system that will at least reduce access to some of the most hideous and vile illegal images that nobody should be viewing".

However, she feels that the new legislation still does not go far enough.

There are real risks that children face online and for that, parental supervision and discretion is required
Colin Jacobs
Electronic Frontiers Australia

"A home-based filtering will do absolutely nothing; it's ineffective and will probably only work for children up to seven years of age.

"We estimate that 30 to 40% of child pornography images on the internet are contained on commercial sites. [This programme] will definitely restrict access to those images and that is better than nothing," she added.

Countries like Britain, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand have all implemented similar filtering systems, but they are all voluntary and not government-mandated.

Such systems are also limited predominantly to blocking child pornography and are run by ISPs that customers can opt into.

The internet industry has also raised concerns about internet slowing down, as previous filtering trials have reduced net speed by as much as 86%.

"The only countries that really do have a widespread technological filtering or censorship regime are China, Iran and Saudi Arabia," said Colin Jacobs from Electronic Frontiers Australia, a group that represents online users' rights.

"In countries like that, where free speech is a real issue, slowing down the internet is a secondary concern to blocking access to undesirable material," he added.

Good in principle

CD being placed in computer, Eyewire
The software will not be able to curb the use of file-sharing

Senator Conroy feels that although the Australian government's idea is good in principle, the technology available cannot support it.

"Unfortunately these filters only stop access to websites. Most illegal material these days is traded on peer-to-peer (P2P) or using other technologies that can't be filtered.

"In terms of preventing access to illegal material, the policy is bound to be a failure," he added.

This is not a new concept in Australia, as the previous administration trialled a free internet filter that people could use if they wanted.

"The difference is that it was an optional filter, so Australians could choose if they wanted to use it rather than this latest plan for a mandatory filtering system," said Mr Morton.

The field trials are due to start in December following lab-based tests that were completed last month.

"If the field trial is successful, there would be a period of consultation, but at this stage there will be a blacklist of illegal sites," said Mr Morton.

"The first tier, which internet users would not be able to opt out of, would block all illegal material. This could be scaled up or down, but control of the list, which would be un-published, is controlled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"The second tier, which is optional, would have content deemed inappropriate for children, such as pornography and sexually explicit material filtered out completely," he added.

Parental control

A man using a laptop
The plan has support from many lobby groups across Australia.

"This is about establishing whether or not it is technically feasible. We're no further down the process than that," said Senator Conroy in a statement.

"We have laws about the sort of material that is acceptable across all mediums and the internet is no different."

Senator Conroy has since made statements in parliament saying the blacklist of sites is presently 1,300 strong, but the pilot will test up to 10,000 unspecified sites.

However, Mr Jacobs does not think a filter is the solution.

"Compiling a blacklist of sites that are forbidden is not really feasible because there are so many sites on the internet and that's just too much for a government bureaucracy to deal with," he said.

"The risks that children face online aren't browsing material that's inappropriate accidentally or on purpose. It's things like cyber bullying, inappropriate chats and identity theft.

"There are real risks that children face online and for that, parental supervision and discretion is required and there's no technological way to get around that," added Mr Jacobs.

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