Didn’t sign up for an internet filter? Have one anyway

HAVE you received an email about Australia’s internet filter lately? Seen a brief note from your internet service provider?

No? Neither have I. Yet, like the majority of Australian internet users, my access to the internet is being filtered. A list of hundreds of websites is being blocked from view. ‘Which websites?’ you ask. It’s hard to say. They’re on a secret list.

‘Why didn’t the Government tell me?’ you ask. The Government isn’t overseeing this operation. In fact, the Australian Government has no control over this filter at all. It’s something a select group of internet providers have taken on all by themselves.

Are you concerned yet? You have a right to be. As suspected, Australia’s internet filter crept on to the worldwide web very quietly.

This filter, you see, was not the much-publicised version devised by Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. It would have seen every website lumped into the ‘Refused Classification’ basket banned from view. There were more than a few Australians concerned about what that filter might ban, including political debates on topics such as euthanasia and abortion.

The RC filter still on the Labor policy table, though we’ll have to wait for the results of a Classification review before it rears up again. That is due next year. The filter we now have (surprise!) was instead devised as a stop-gap while we wait for our full-blown filter. It is just as secretive, however.

Optus has confirmed it plans to start censoring the web this month, though it won’t say when. Telstra flicked the filtering switch on July 1, as did CyberOne.

So what exactly are they filtering? At this stage, the voluntary filter is designed to block child abuse material. According to the Communications Minister’s department, that includes the ACMA list of about 500 websites plus Interpol’s list of sites. We don’t know how long this list of websites is. No one will say.

So why should you be concerned? No one here is in favour of child abuse, after all. Here’s a list to get you startled.

1. Subscribers have not been told.

I expected to know when Australia got its first internet filter. I also expected to be notified when my long-time internet provider installed one. Telstra has told me nothing about it. Millions of others are in the same boat. If it’s for our own good, why aren’t we being told about it?

2. We don’t know what is on this list.

It’s all very well for the IIA to come out in support of this voluntary, commercial filtering, but even they won’t say what exactly is being filtered. Can we have content descriptions at least? Will there be a repeat of the incident in which Wikipedia was blocked in the UK due to an album cover the Internet Watch Foundation didn’t like? Nobody knows.

3. No appeals process.

Discover your website is being blocked unfairly? Perhaps you have a saucy album cover on your website? There is no way to appeal this ban. You could perhaps lobby the IIA or individual service providers, but there is no pre-constructed method to get your site off this list.

4. Companies are in charge.

This internet filter affects millions of Australian internet users yet it’s being governed by companies. Forget child abuse. Why not block customers whinging about Aussie telcos? Why doesn’t Vodafone block Vodafail? It’s possible now.

5. Paving the way for a bigger filter.

Much more serious is the threat that this system could be expanded to become Conroy’s planned internet filter. If no laws are required to set up this system, what is preventing its expansion to all Refused Classification sites? What is to prevent the banned website list getting longer? Based on this current experience, we would never know just how long the list was and wouldn’t discover a website was banned until we tried to visit it. This filter could become downright insidious without notice.

There is hope, however. Quite a few Australian internet providers do not see it as their job to block websites. These include iiNet, Internode, Exetel and TPG. Those looking for a way to protest this quiet filter can opt for any of these services.

We shouldn’t have to change service providers to make a political point though. This filter is not something Australians were allowed to vote upon and it’s not something about which we’ve been adequately informed. The Government won’t say anything about it as they’re not in charge of it and the ISPs are not even telling their customers.

If a site is illegal, take it down. If more law enforcement is needed online, fund it. Installing a voluntary, commercially introduced ban on a list of unknown websites? Dodgy.


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