The Federal Government’s proposed internet filter will be a tax on Australian business and do little to fix the problem of online nasties. PAUL WALLBANK
By Paul Wallbank
As reported in SmartCompany last week the Federal Government is proceeding with trials of internet filters that will restrict Australian access to the world wide web.
The aim of internet filtering is to block child abuse sites from Australian web surfers. While the idea is well meaning, the proposal will be an additional burden on business and won’t fix the problem.
There certainly is a problem – a study by the University of California, Berkeley, found around 1% of websites contain pornographic material. With over a billion websites indexed by Google, this translates to around 10 million sites containing things you’d rather not be seen in your workplace or by your kids.
To deal with this problem, most computer operating systems, browsers and search engines have built-in adult filters, and the Federal Government provides free software for home computer users on its NetAlert website.
The new filter will go a number of steps further, with it being compulsory for internet providers to deny access to around 10,000 sites, a number that falls dramatically short of the 10 million estimated pornographic sites and who knows how many terrorist, gambling and euthanasia sites that will probably be added to the list.
The task of deciding which of the billion websites to be blacked out will fall upon the Classification Board. In 2005-6, their 65 staff considered 9425 movies, video games and websites. To say the board will require a massive injection of resources is an understatement.
Under the current proposals, the banned list would be secret, and it’s uncertain if your business inadvertently found itself on the list how an appeal mechanism would work.
One serious risk for business is that many of the people who post illegal and inappropriate material do so on others’ computers to avoid detection. Hacked personal computers and corporate servers are frequently used by criminal gangs for exactly this purpose.
There is also the risk of sites being blocked for political reasons. Canberra has form on this, with the Federal Police using spurious copyright reasons to close down Richard Neville’s spoof John Howard site in 2006. A staffer of the present Federal Government indirectly pressured a prominent critic of the filtering proposal through his industry association.
So there are real risks to your website if someone in your company does something illegal, messes up a security setting, or simply upsets the wrong person in a minister’s office.
However it’s not the censorship aspects of filtering that should be the main concern for businesses. The indirect consequences will be deep and far reaching for Australian commerce.
The immediate effect is filtering will increase internet costs. Given 98% of businesses use the internet, the increased ISP charges will be a tax on almost every Australian enterprise.
Business relies upon fast, reliable communications. Trials to date of the filtering systems show a decrease of speed between 2% and 84%. The filters will also add another level of complexity to the system, which in turn reduces reliability.
Those additional costs will become another barrier to entry. At the very time the Federal Government is struggling with competition in the communications industry, this proposal will eliminate many smaller operators and favour the larger incumbent providers.
Overall, this proposal will add costs and reduce the reliability of one of the modern economy’s critical business tools. The real tragedy is the filters simply won’t work.
Paul Wallbank speaks and writes on how business owners can meet the challenges of the new economy. A business owner himself, Paul has spent over 15 years helping businesses achieve their potential. He has two computer advice websites; PC Rescue and IT Queries, and appears monthly on ABC Local Radio’s Nightlife program and Sydney 702 weekends.
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Richard Jary writes: You incorrectly write that it is up the classification board to decide what is blacked out. That is incorrect as they only have jurisdiction on what is published within Australia. The blacklist is currently maintained by ACMA, so which minor public servant gets the job of surfing the web looking for something they can add (as well as responding to any ministerial hints about “unwanted” material). If it was a transparent process, the material had been vetted against Australian standards then maybe. Or rules by a court. But not a secret list. No way.
Paul Wallbank replies: Thanks for your comment, Richard. One of the big concerns about filtering is exactly how an appeals process or independent oversight of a blacklist will work. ACMA refers any complaint about a website to the classification board. The board then classifies the site under the same system used for computer games and movies. If the board refuses classification or gives the site an X18+ rating, then ACMA adds the site to the blacklist. The details are on the ACMA and Classification Board websites.
Tony Johansen writes: There is another element that impacts on business and not mentioned here, but an extremely important one for business – the frustration factor. Web users tend to click away from slow loading pages very quickly. As an increasing percentage of customers come from the web (for me it is over 80%) I am all too aware of the need for my web site pages to load fast. I cannot afford to lose customers because impatience causes someone to move on. A difference of just 5% can mean less profitability and could easily force marginal businesses out of business. We already have a problem in that there are too many people still on dial up speeds and experience shows that as people move to broadband their online purchasing and seeking of information increases dramatically. Speed counts.
Danu Poyner writes: Good article and great to see this getting out among the business community. Is there anyone in Australia who will actually benefit from the net filter in any way?