Filtering Internet access

Tips & Hints

20 April, 2006

Internet filtering is to be trialled in Tasmania. What is it and does it work?

Internet filterting has become a hot political issue in the last month with the both the Federal opposition and government proposing ideas. Most of this comes from a concern by Liberal Senator Guy Barnett about access to inappropriate material over the Internet. To this end, the Senator has organised an trial of ISP based filtering in Tasmania.

Up until now, Internet content filtering has been mainly the responsibility of the user, you can monitor usage, buy filtering packages or modify your own computer to block unwanted content. With ISP or backbone based filtering, it is all done before the information gets to the users computer. This means the user has little, if any, say in what is appropriate.

What should we filter?

Theres no doubt most people are concerned about inappropriate material on the Internet. Defining inappropriate material is the biggest problem: Where do we draw the line? Is a topless picture of the latest "It Girl" pornography or glamour? And do we just filter pictures and video and allow stories, messages and blogs through the system?

Another issue is why just pornography? There's no shortage of race-hate sites, religious and political fanatic sites, or sites pushing false or misleading political agendas, not to mention those that try phishing scams, traffic pirate software or install spyware. Again, we hit the problems of definitions: One's person acceptable site might be offensive lies to another.

This is why the industry tends to favour user-based filtering. Rather than having big brother decide what is appropriate, homes and offices can decide what they want to block. This takes a lot of responsibility and cost off government and the Internet providers.

Does filtering work?

In a word, yes. But to effectively operate, the government will have to centrally monitor Internet sites as well as deal with complaints from the community. This means a massive increase of resources for the Australian Broadcasting Authority and some sort of licencing regime for Internet providers.

The Open Net Initiative, that tracks internet filtering shows it is feasible in countries that filter for political or religious reasons. Saudi Arabia restricts pornographic and extremist sites. China has by far the strictest and most effective blocks while Singapore is probably the most advanced country that filters the Internet. Interestingly, Singapore's also seems to be the loosest filter, this is probably due to the resources required.

Will it work?

Probably not, searching for "+the" on Google returns over 24 billion pages. While the majority probably don't contain offensive material, the resources required to monitor even a modest proportion of them is huge. It's a task too big for the industry and it's unlikely governments would provide the funds, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation makes this point in their critique of filtering proposals.

How to protect your system

Given it's unlikely governments are going to protect your family and computer from the nasties of the Internet, it's up to you do it. For businesses, a hardware filter is the best bet and can be setup for $2,000. Home users can buy filtering software for under $100, the Federal government's Net Alert program has a list of the most common ones.

Even if we do get a national web filter, things will still get though. Nothing can make up for responsible use and supervision: It's important make users, be they kids, teenagers or employees understand they are expected to use the net responsibily and that parents and business owners supervise that usage. While the Tasmanian experiment is worth watching closely, a nationwide filter is probably not going to happen, if you are concerned about net usage you will have to start filtering at home.
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