CHRISTMAS SHOCK: Australian government to trial P2P filters

One of the many trenchant criticisms of the proposed Australian Internet filter is that in its originally proposed form it didn’t include anything other than Web-based content. The government solution to that quandary? Add P2P to the list of the content types that the still-murky filter systems will have to try and sort through.

Since releasing its murky and contradictory guidelines for ISPs participating in filtering trials the Federal Government has been largely silent on the issues surrounding the filter despite widespread public protests over the event. In the past week however more details have emerged albeit largely due to pressure from elsewhere.

On the somewhat derided governmental blog broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy revealed that the trial was expected to include a variety of platforms including peer-to-peer content. “Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial” Conroy wrote. Conroy did not identify any such technology and it is not mentioned in the briefing documents on the proposal.

On the blog Conroy has provided responses to a number of common criticisms but few are definitive and most leave plenty of wriggle room. For instance Conroy noted that there were no plans to publish details of the contents of the blacklist of banned Internet sites noting that the majority of that content was child pornography. However he did not respond to the suggestion that content which didn’t fall into that category but which was banned should be identified.

In the same way Conroy noted that ACMA uses the classification guidelines which apply to movies and games when monitoring sites but didn’t discuss the fact that these impose different judgements on game content than on movies. That leaves the Internet wide-open to judgement by the more restrictive rules much-ridiculed rules applied to games.

As for concerns over speed Conroy wrote: “We’re undertaking a live trial of filtering technologies in order to collect evidence of the technical dimensions of internet filtering.” However that statement doesn’t actually leave open the possibility that the plan would be dumped if (as many suspect) it creates a major slowdown. In other words: we’ll know exactly how much we’ll slow you down before we do it.

Conroy also this week belatedly issued a response to a much-discussed analysis of filtering technologies by the Internet Industry Association (IIA) which had been commissioned by the Howard Government but remained unreleased until widespread media discussion of its content. The IIA report echoed much of the criticisms of the current filtering proposal pointing out that it would be virtually impossible to manage and easily open to abuse.

Conroy said that the document was merely a literature review unrelated to Labor’s specific plans and not an empirical test. However he has previously shown a willingness to be highly selective when looking at empirical tests. For instance when looking at ACMA’s review of how limited-scale blacklisting had worked which was released in July Conroy welcomed “advances in Internet filtering technology” without remarking on the speed impacts and large number of false positives which ACMA had also identified.

Conroy has also confirmed that broader filtering trials will begin in mid-January making it one of the more slowly implemented policies of the Rudd government’s initial terms. Participating ISPs have not been named although Telstra Australia’s largest ISP will not be participating.