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Sunday, 02 April 2006 16:05

Client-side content filtering needs a hard sell

Out the blue the other week Opposition leader, Kim Beazley, called for all Internet service providers to be required to provide server-side filtering inappropriate material, but existing requirements on ISPs regarding client-side filtering haven't been pushed hard enough.

Under Labor's proposal server-side filtering would be mandatory and access to the unfiltered Internet would be available only on request. His proposal was immediately condemned by both the Government and the Internet Industry Association.

Communications minister Helen Coonan claimed that server-side filtering was both costly and severely detrimental to performance.

"All server-level filters tested had a major impact on network performance ranging from an 18 percent degradation for the best performing filter to 78 percent on the worst performing ... Server-level filters perform adequately at slower speeds, for the faster upstream connections that are common in larger ISPs, the performance degraded significantly."

Cost, she said was another major issue. "A previous Government review into the filtering technology that is the basis of Labor's plan also found that it would involve implementation costs of around $45 million and ongoing costs of more than $33 million per annum for ISPs for questionable benefit."

The answer, according to Coonan, is client-based filtering. "PC-based filtering remains the most effective way of protecting children from offensive Internet content, as well as other threats that are not addressed by Labor's ISP-filtering proposals.

"PC-based filters are more effective at blocking all manner of offensive content, provide greater control to parents of the content their children are exposed to and do not affect the performance of the Internet for all users."

Surprisingly, Coonan did not mention that regulation imposes on ISPs certain obligations regarding the provision of content filters: obligations which IIA CEO, Peter Coroneos, was quick to point out.

"Under the government-backed Internet Content Code scheme which applies in Australia, ISPs are already required to provide their customers with access to a filter or filtered feed. Furthermore, these filters must pass rigorous independent testing to ensure they not only catch the kind of content referred to the in the Opposition's proposal, but also thousands of other sites which are likely to cause offence to adults and potential disturbance to children.

"On top of all this, the scheme prohibits ISPs from profiting from the provision of these filters - they must be offered on a cost recovery basis, and some ISPs even offer them for free."

Seemed like a pretty good scheme and I was very surprised that Coonan had made not mention of it: it would have been a strong counter to Beazley's proposal. I'd never heard of the scheme, and Coroneos admitted that it could perhaps be better promoted.

However, while is sounds impressive what it means in reality is that an ISP need do no more than put a link on its home page to the IIA's site where information on content filters is available, or a link to a commercial supplier of an approved filter, which can charge its full commercial rate for that product.

I recently signed up as an Unwired customer and don't recall them making any mention of their obligation to "make available" content filtering software when I signed up. So I checked out their homepage. Nice big picture of pretty girl smiling with the words "want to keep the Internet safe for everyone - click here to find out how unwired can help".

This goes to another page: "If you'd like to protect your family '¨ from inappropriate material, click below to find out more about Net Nanny. Once installed, this software will allow you to monitor and block inappropriate sites from being accessed from your computer."

This in turn goes to another page with three links, one to NetAlert, the Australian Government's Net Alert website that provides advice on Internet safety, one to the Internet Industry Association page on Internet safety, and to the eCommerce site for the vendor of NetNanny, $89.95 thank you very much. You can by the way by the product direct from BigPond for a mere $54.95, and it does not seem like you have to be BigPond customer to get it at this price.

The link to the filter on  BigPond's home page is is less prominent, and neither  BigPond or Unwired any indication that there is a government requirement to provide access to a content filter.  Pacific Internet's web site has a link "online safety" which simply goes to the IIA's "guide for Internet users."

Perhaps NetAlert could tell me more? Ah! a parents guide to Internet Safety. Looks like just the trick. What does it say about filterin?

"Filters are software tools which can block a user's access to websites and specific Internet services. Many of the safety programs we suggest you use are available from your Internet service provider, retail shops or by downloading them from the Internet. There are a number of packages available that can perform many of the things you need, so purchasing one of those may be the easiest thing to do. You may wish to have a look at some particular programs we recommend. These are especially suited for use in the home."

And there is a list of seven "recommended" filters that NetAlert "suggests" we use. Does that mean they have passed this "rigorous independent testing"? I don't know and neither I suspect would the average user, because it's hard to find any information about it. Certiainly this was not mentioned in the guide.

The best information on filtering I could find is under 'F' in the alphabetic topic listing on the NetAlert website.

Recent reports on Beazley's server-side filtering initiative suggest it is gaining support, including from the Government's own back benches. Given the half-hearted way in which the rules on client-side filtering seem to have been implemented, this does not surprise me.

Putting the ideological arguments and the relative technical merits of client-side and server-side filtering aside a mandated onus on ISP to "make content filtering software available" that can be fulfilled merelyby a link to a commercial site is, to my mind, inadequate.

If this scheme is to have any credibility as a viable option in the face of the server-side lobby at the very least there should more onerous requirements on ISPs to provide information about their obligations and the available options: when customers sign-up for a service, with monthly invoices, with some degree of prominence on the home page, etc. And it should be made clear that this is a government-mandated requirement.

It's a bit like health warnings on cigarette packets. These started off as small print on the bottom of the packet, a move which proved to be minimally effective. Today no-one can pretend ignorance: it should be the same for content filtering. In effect Internet access should carry a prominent 'health warning" clearly identified as coming from the Government

Many people might still baulk at forking out upwards of $50 for filtering software and then having to go through the rigmarole of configuring it. In which case more draconian measures may be needed, but at least we'll have tried.



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