The Coalition's Internet Filter Plan Debacle (UPDATED)

Just two days before the election, the Coalition has announced it will introduce an internet filter that would be switched on for all broadband services and mobile devices by default should it win. Quite aside from the political timing , the plan seems light on technical detail to the point of confusion. UPDATE: The Coalition is now saying the policy it issued was an "incorrect document", though that leaves several questions unanswered.

Filtering picture from Shutterstock

The plan is part of the Coalition 'Policy to Enhance Online Safety For Children', which proposes a range of measures to deal with both cyber-bullying and children accessing "age-inappropriate content". Here's the relevant part of the statement:

We will introduce nationally agreed default safety standards for smartphones and other devices, and internet access services. As has recently been achieved in the United Kingdom, we expect these standards will:

  • involve mobile phone operators installing adult content filters on phones which will be switched on as the default unless the customer proves he or she is at least 18 years of age; and
  • involve major internet service providers providing home network filters for all new home broadband services, which will be switched on as the default unless the customer specifies otherwise.

The standards for these would apparently be developed within 12 months, though the statement doesn't explicitly say they would be introduced at that time. $10 million dollars will initially be allocated to the project.

The description of the phone element of the plan suggests the filter would be installed on the phone itself. Frankly this seems impossible to imagine working; it would require systems for every phone model and OS, couldn't withstand devices being reimaged and wouldn't work for SIM-only providers. Comments made by Malcolm Turnbull to JJJ's Hack program, however, suggest that it would indeed be client-side, not server-side.

Providing Internet filter software to parents isn't a new idea — a scheme to do that on a voluntary basis was introduced by the Coalition when last in power, but ditched by Labor and never proved very popular — but again the suggestion that this will be 'switched on as the default' doesn't gel with a client-side approach. Liberal MP Paul Fletcher told ZDNet the scheme would involve "a filter in the home device".

The scheme used in the UK involves mobile operators and ISPs maintaining a list of content and blocking it if users try to access it and haven't opted out of the filter. One potential issue with that approach (and the Coalition proposal) is content delivered through apps or reblogged via sites such as Tumblr.

Even assuming this mess of contradiction can be worked through, many of the same objections that were raised when Labor proposed a mandatory internet filter for everyone apply here: material can easily be mis-classified and it's often trivial to work around those restrictions (by viewing cached content, for instance).

As with the Coalition's NBN plan, though, the biggest technical problem is the lack of detail. There's no detailed implementation information, there has been no discussion with ISPs or mobile operators as to how the scheme would work, and we're clearly not going to see that detail pre-election.

UPDATE: The Coalition has now issued a statement which says that the incorrect policy was issued and that it does not require a mandatory filter. Its statement says:

The policy which was issued today was poorly worded and incorrectly indicated that the Coalition supported an "opt out" system of internet filtering for both mobile and fixed line services. That is not our policy and never has been. The correct position is that the Coalition will encourage mobile phone and internet service providers to make available software which parents can choose to install on their own devices to protect their children from inappropriate material.

It has pulled the original policy from its site.

Two things of note: firstly, the claim that the Coalition "never had" such a policy seems entirely contradicted by the fact that at least two Coalition members generally associated with technology issues (Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Bradfield) both defended the policy to media after the announcement. Secondly, the fact that a version of the document existed and was shared suggests that such a policy was actively considered. The technical issues evaporate (for the moment), but I suspect this isn't the last we'll hear on this issue.

MORE:

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Comments

    Well this has just cemented my plans to vote for the Pirate Party! The ALP tried this for years to no avail and now Abbott has spring this at the 11th hour? Screw that! At least a vote for the pirate party will send them a message, and with a bit of luck having a party fundamentally opposed to this sort of rubbish may do the country some good. The rest of their policies and thier preference decision system dont look half bad either!

      http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2013/09/05/coalitions-policy-enhance-online-safety-children

      I thought I'd fact check being as there was no source article.

      No filter. It's a software scheme.

        Two things of note: firstly, the claim that the Coalition “never had” such a policy seems entirely contradicted by the fact that at least two Coalition members generally associated with technology issues (Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Bradfield) both defended the policy to media after the announcement. Secondly, the fact that a version of the document existed and was shared suggests that such a policy was actively considered. The technical issues evaporate (for the moment), but I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear on this issue.

        They've considered it, and we all know software schemes never work. The fact that he brings up a plan, and has written documentation that was released shows it was considered. Then he backflips and says its not, and on top of that he announces it 2 days before the election, not someone I want running this country

          Don't they already have this software policy, or did have in the past and they discontinued it due to lack of interest? I seem to remember something like this a year or two ago..

    I don't like the labour party that much, but the thought of the coalition running our country scares the crap outta me. It even has a 1984esque fake name for the plan, that you would clearly not be against unless you hated "children's safety"

    "involve mobile phone operators installing adult content filters on phones which will be switched on as the default unless the customer proves he or she is at least 18 years of age.."
    So, the filters will be client-side? Yeah... I don't see this going down well. People on Whirlpool are outraged that they've left it to the last 2 days to say this.

    Also, from ZDNet:
    Liberal MP Paul Fletcher -
    " He said that much of the detail is still yet to be worked out on how the filter would work, but would likely be hardware included on an internet connection in each user's home"

    Last edited 05/09/13 7:12 pm

    Cut aid for the poorer people of the planet.
    Pay $3,000 a week to rich people to have babies.
    Stop all train expansion to build roads into Liberal seats.
    Buy Indonesia's fishing boats and stop refugees (But make changes so numbers arriving are not published)

    And BY STEALTH, at the 11th hour, filter our phones and internet to "Think of the flapping Children".

    Vote Liberal and Lose.

    It just goes to show how stupid this policy is. "Perhaps if we keep it quiet til the 11th hour not many people will find out".

    Sorry. The internet doesn't work like that. We don't need days to print flyers and hand them out. We don't need to mail out.
    We have Twitter
    We have Facebook
    We have Google+
    We have websites
    We have forums.

    They shot themselves in the foot for this plan. Anyone opposed to the filter will hear about it before the election. By leaving it til the 11th hour without any scrutiny by the public they've just earned themselves 'distrust points'. Dumb, dumb move by Liberal on this particular front.

      if this filter comes into affect, the government will have the power to stop these tools of communication, giving more control to Abbott and Murdoch. Reminds me of Orwell's 1984

    I thought we had seen the last of this filter business when Conroy abandoned it.
    Now these Coalition IT luddites have come up with something almost as bad.

    Next they will branding us all heretics and ordering all books/libraries be burned and destroying Australia's broadband internet. Oh wait......

    Absolutely absurd.... Especially about a mandatory porn filter for anyone under 18. Lord knows what would happen if a 17 and 9/10th's year old saw breasts on the internet right? They might even see a vagina, or a penis (if that's what your into).

    My major concern though is that bills like this just keep coming.. So we know that they will just keep coming, but who is going to lead the fight against them *every. single. time.*

      Thinking further; I think that if this WERE to pass - which all reasonable logic would say it would not even if they do get into power - but this is politics we're talking about here.. I would probably leave this country.

    Full retard.

    Badly worded policy - it is not a filter but software available to parents.

      Then how about like all other Liberal ideas - you pay for it yourselves? Free-market douches
      What ever happened to attentive parenting and not asking government to do it for you?
      rhetorical question...

      It's software, yes, but available to everyone. Mandatory. Until you get off your arse and prove to someone you're 18. That's what 'opt-out' does mean.

    Turnbull and Abbott are now BOTH saying that they did not know about this and the first they read of the policy was a few days ago and they had trouble making sense of it?

    They take us as mugs.

    If Turnbull is the Liberal communications person, why would he not be writing his own policies. Just who is REALLY pulling the strings? The ACL I will bet!

    Abbott also as leader claims the first he heard of it was last night? Come on, he is fighting an election and letting someone release major policy, including line items in this budget they have been working on for 18 months?

    Now, either they have had this policy all along and released it by mistake, meaning to spring it on us after the election, or they have someone behind the scenes who hands them the policies at the last second themselves.

    Or they are just amateurs incapable of governing.

    At least it's now clear why Abbott needs to buys so many fishing boats, they need to install filters in those undersea cable things.

    Stop ranting on here. Go and find a liberal voter and convince them in person of one thing that is a problem with the liberal party. Enough people do that an you might change something.

    Don't worry I can ddos the filters! EAT THAT ABBOTT!

    They took us for mugs and unfortunately most of Australia fit into that category!

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