OpenNet Initiative: Australia’s content filtering “frightening”

A collaboration of Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and Toronto universities warns that Internet filtering is prone to error, collateral filtering and underblocking, no matter where or how it is implemented

The principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has labelled the federal government’s proposed mandatory Internet filtering scheme “frightening” and typical of non-democratic regimes.

Associate Professor, Ronald Deibert, is co-founder and principal investigator of ONI – a collaborative partnership between Harvard Law School, Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto.

Deibert told ARN he found the proposal to implement mandatory filtering in Australia both puzzling and frightening.

“Over the last 7 years, I have closely documented patterns of Internet filtering worldwide, and typically proposals of this sort are found among non-democratic regimes,” he said.

“There is a trend towards filtering of access to information involving the sexual exploitation of children, for example in Canada and the United Kingdom, but these appear to be much narrower in scope than that which is being proposed in Australia.”

“Filtering, wherever and however it occurs, is prone to error, collateral filtering and underblocking. This is the one definite finding the ONI has produced

Ronald Deibert, OpenNet Initiative

Senator Conroy’s proposal that ISPs provide a mandatory clean Internet feed to all Australians will undergo a live trial over the Christmas period. The Federal Opposition, industry and privacy groups have rejected the proposal, while the Greens have accused Conroy of misleading parliament over what other countries have trialed mandatory filtering.

Deibert, who also co-authored the book Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, said optional filtering schemes in Canada and the UK had major transparency and accountability problems that may be duplicated, if not exacerbated, in Australia.

In Canada, for example, filtering of access to child pornography is left in the hands of private ISPs. Deibert said this lack of civilian oversight meant there was no measure of redress for sites that had been improperly blocked.

In Australia, the public will have no means to determine what sites are blocked, as recent amendments to Freedom of Information laws means the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will administer a secret blacklist with no public oversight or accountability.

“I find it puzzling because although I do not know the Australian political situation well, I have never thought of Australians being particularly prudish or conservative. I suppose I am wrong. There are numerous accountability problems and lingering questions about this system that activists, scholars, and academics in Australia have pointed out. I share their concerns,” he said.

“Filtering, wherever and however it occurs, is prone to error, collateral filtering and underblocking. This is the one definite finding the ONI has produced.”

Deibert does not doubt the good intentions behind Senator Conroy’s proposal, but claims implementation of mandatory filtering reflects a lack of understanding of the limits of filtering, the dangers of unaccountable and opaque public policy practices, and the absence of checks and balances.

“I think it's the wrong approach entirely. We need to provide assistance to law enforcement and intelligence and leave whatever filtering occurs to private actors in voluntary arrangements. That way people can choose for themselves what services they want to purchase, and law enforcement and intelligence agents have the resources they need to do the job properly," he said.

Deibert claimed Senator Conroy’s $125.8 million budget allocation for the filtering scheme would be better spent dedicating more resources and technology to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to track down people who produced and distributed images of child exploitation.

“From what little I know about this area, filtering of access to information related to the sexual exploitation of children will not prevent the circulation of this material that almost all reasonable people believe is objectionable, including me,” he said.

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