Greg Dwyer is collecting material on the proposed internet filtering in Australia. So I am sharing my thoughts and particularly my experience with the filtering software I now look after at the State Library of WA, with you as well as Greg.
The library started using filtering software after a few incidents involving members of the public accessing pornography on public access computers in open areas of the library. The filtering software is provided by a major international provider and has a blocking list updated twice a week.
When I was given control of the filtering software, I had a good look at what sites where blocked and particularly the exceptions that where added by my predecessors, because the filter was also applied to the staff internet access and with very conservative settings, blocking a number of categories.
Amongst the surprises, where:
- World movies pay TV channel website is classified as pornography and blocked.
- A site aimed at provided very basic health information (including sexual health) to pre-teens was classified is sexual material and blocked.
- The website of a well known Australian gay and lesbian book store is classified as sexual material and blocked. Even though the same books, often with more details are available through Amazon, which is not restricted in anyway.
- An online Australian store specialising in horror DVDs was blocked. I believe graphic violence is the category. However, the great majority of the DVDs could be purchased on Amazon with equally graphic descriptions, which is not restricted in anyway.
So what will happen if a book is published in the US and is refused classification in Australia. A good example would be a book on voluntary euthanasia, which while topical in the US, there is no reason for Amazon not to stock it. Unfortunately such a book would be refused classification in Australia. So how would the Australian filtering regime deal with Amazon selling the book and making excerpts available on the web?
Block access to the Amazon site. This would appear to be normal course of action, if a site has any restricted content, the whole site is blocked. So how would the Australian Government deal with international criticism of their action of telling a retailer in another country what the can or can not sell in any other country, by punishing them, by blocking access to the Australian market?
By blocking access to the pages pertaining to that book on Amazon’s site. There are a number of issues:
- There is a lot more work involved in blocking individual pages than sites.
- Page blocking fails with dynamically generated content.
- Why block pages on some sites and block complete sites on other occasions. The have and have nots of filtering, treating Amazon and other big sites differently from smaller retailers without the clout.
Ignore it, because it is too difficult. Which again raises the issues of the have and have nots of filtering, treating Amazon and other big sites differently from smaller retailers without the clout.
Our filter setting where changed last year after discussions with senior management, to just pornography and malicious sites. Since that time, the number of pages blocked has fallen dramatically and there was only one issue. A member of the public was behaving inappropriately when accessing pornography on a public access computer.
A review of the filter log found that the person tried and failed to access 17 different pornographic sites, before succeeding on the 18th attempt. Further investigation of the log files, indicate that this was not the only time multiple attempts to access pornographic sites was made. Often more than 20 failed attempts are made, before either success or giving up, which appears to be a rare success. While the filtering software is good and blocks access to the great majority of pornographic sites. Repeated attempts by a determined person will gain access to pornography.
With the reduction in the number categories has also reduced the number of sites blocked, it still appears to be a small proportion of false positives. It is very frustrating to be researching a web development issue, only to find the site which may have the answer blocked. Particularly when you access the site by other means (laptop with 3G broadband card or mobile phone) and find no reason why that site should be blocked. It happens in less than 1% of all sites I try to access, but it is frustrating for me and I always have alternative methods available. It will be more frustrating for our clients who are researching obscure topics and do not alternative access.
Based on my experience, I would say the filter will have not have the desired effect that Senator Conroy or the Government desires:
- People seeking pornography or refused classification material will keep trying until they find the material they want. Filters may block the majority of this content but can not block all of it. There is a lot of that material on the internet and people we keep trying to find it until they succeed.
- People seeking very specific information, will get frustrated as on occasions site they are referred to are blocked for no apparent reason.
The commercial implications for web commerce could be quite dramatic, will the Australian Government block access to Amazon and eBay for displaying and selling RC material? Will the government compensate to retailers for lost income when their sites are incorrectly blocked? How many retailers will use the filter as a weapon, by complaining about competitor sites dealing with adult content? Will specialist retailer sites be blocked, while the the more general retailer selling the same products is not?