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.