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The 'Great Firewall of Australia'

Nick Bryant | 08:01 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

The over-reach of an overbearing nanny state or a sensible approach to cyber safety?

The violation of Australia's long-held tradition of freedom of speech or a well-intentioned attempt to protect vulnerable children?

More evidence of a creeping social conservatism in Australian public life or a timely acknowledgement that the darkest corners of the worldwide web should not be free from government scrutiny and regulation?

The debate over whether the Rudd government should be allowed to filter the internet - or create what critics are calling the "Great Firewall of Australia" - highlights all sorts of ideological, ethical, legal, religious and political questions.

Secrecy continues to surround the blacklist

It has also intensified following the publication of what the Wikileaks website has claimed is the list of the 2,400 internet addresses which the Rudd government intends to put on the blacklist.

Many of the addresses are for child pornography. But the list also includes a school cafeteria consultancy firm, online poker parlours and a dental office, which was once hacked in to so that users would be directed to an online adult site.

The government has denied that the list is the same as a blacklist run by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, but that has not eased the fears of online civil liberties groups. Secrecy continues to surround the blacklist.

For all the ongoing arguments about censorship and the encroachment of the state, the question of whether to introduce a filter may ultimately be settled on practical and technological grounds: in short, the workability of the filter.

Here, there are two central issues: first, would the filter be able to block illegal material; and second, what impact would it have on the speed of the internet - the technical term is network degradation.

The government has conducted laboratory trials on various filtering technology, which showed 2% network degradation with the top performing filter product, and over 75% with two others.

Even with the most efficient filter, internet campaigners say there is a tendency to "overblock", thus restricting legal sites which have, say, high ratios of skin colour to texts.

Then there's the question of whether the filters will be effective.

In the laboratory trials, the best performing filtering product scored 97%. Internet experts say filters will not impact peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks, which are one of the main ways in which illegal material, like child pornography, gets sent around the world.

To bring you right up to speed, the Rudd government is hoping still to run field trials of the filter, and has signed up a number of internet providers to conduct them. Some of the ISPs have agreed to take part in the trials to demonstrate the unworkability of the filter.

With the country battling to stave off recession and given the importance now of e-commerce, the Rudd government might be reluctant to introduce a filter which the critics say would undermine Australia's international competitiveness and have a detrimental impact on productivity. So its plans for an internet filter might ultimately become yet another victim of the global financial crisis.


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