Sunday, 9 March 2008

Mandated Filtering

Lately there have been many ideas about what kinds of things might be screened from the Internet user by their ISP (internet service provider), or perhaps monitored. Suggestions include things that are illegal, content which infringes other people's rights, and things that others just don't like.

Within Australia there has been recent discussion around the so-called "clean feed" has been based on requiring ISPs to block some categories of material. The focus has been on material which is refused classification - banned - in Australia. A recent report in The Australian (26 February) outlines plans by the Commonwealth Government to test ISP-based content filters.

One of the ambiguities in the whole debate about clean feeds and other filtering approaches is the lack of clarity over just what would be filtered out. The use of vague terms like "harmful and inappropriate material" compounds confusion and rightly attracts derision, according to a recent piece in Business Week.

In fact, ISPs already filter out a great deal of material, and you may not have a clear idea of what they do filter out. They may not.

Discussion of what may be monitored or filtered out from your internet experience is much wider than pornography. It has extended to the copyright sphere.

Michael Geist has an interesting post on mandated filtering in relation to copyright here. He points to recent developments in Belgium, France and the UK where music and movie interests are seeking mandatory filtering of Internet content by ISPs to identify and block "copyrighted content." "Such an approach", Geist suggests, "would be an enormous threat to the free flow of information online, it would curtail consumer rights, place new burdens on education and research, and create great harm to personal privacy."

An interesting piece in PC World discussed the work between AT&T and the Motion Picture Association of America on a fingerprinting system that could identify copyrighted material on the network. AT&T has no current plans to be "an enforcement agent or a policeman for content transported on our network", according to AT&T, "and in fact, there is no technology solution available at this time."

Plans for filtering are not just confined to pornography and copyright infringement - here is another example. ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority) produces a blacklist of web pages which are refused classification, and sends this list to Australian ISPs. These are sites which it is, generally speaking, illegal to possess. The Australian reported recently that ACMA has also recently sent out a list of illegal gambling pages for ISPs to block. ACMA clarified that they normally send out a list (about 800 web pages) which combines illegal online gambling sites with other illegal material. The term "inappropriate" was used the describe the gambling sites.

There are so many things on the internet that someone thinks should be blocked to everyone. The new government has issued statements about access to information on the internet, but they are all about blocking things. Where is the balancing statement about our right to access information? Does the Government have a point of view?

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