Australia’s Proposed ‘Clean Feed’ System: Filtering Australia’s Economic Future

The below is an essay I wrote on the clean feed proposed by the Australian Rudd Govt.

On the 21st of March 2006, the Federal Labour Government announced plans for an internet filter/blocking system that would be mandatory for all Internet Service Providers (ISPs). (Electronic Frontiers Australia. 2008).This proposal was kept on board by the current Rudd government and continues to be an area of heavy research and debate. In recent days there have been several articles shedding light on the proposed ‘clean feed’ system that is in development. The system will feature two mandatory tiers. The first which users cannot opt out of, will block content that is listed as “illegal material’ as determined in part by a blacklist administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) (Electronic Frontiers Australia . 2008). The second tier which users can contact their ISP and have removed, aims to filter content deemed inappropriate for children (Moses. 2008). The concept of a government regulated, nation-wide filter system brings many issues to the surface and will have a profound effect on Australia’s ability to remain a key international business contender as we move further into the digital age. Therefore, this paper will argue that introduction of a government regulated internet filter will lead to decreased internet speeds and technical issues which will inhibit Australia‟s technological and economic growth. Additionally although there may be some benefits in censoring some materials against the vulnerable, it must be noted that this filter will strip Australians of their freedom of speech in the online world.

The foremost issue with the current proposal is the technical issues faced by filters in general. McCrea, Smart and Andrews (1998) assert that filtering works on two levels; at the application level and at the packet level. At an application level filtering is done by the ISP directing access to a site by specifying particular URL’s, pages, files or news groups by forcing the internet access through a proxy server. This is the level of content blocking we currently see being carried out by China. (McCrea et al.1998). Application level filtering has been shown to have many technical issues, including that it is easily circumvented, making it ineffective (McCrea et al. 1998).

At a packet level, filtering takes place before the source data can reach an ISP. This is done by supplying Backbone Service Providers with a blacklist of IP addresses, this block is indiscriminate, meaning if a large hosting site in the US were to have a few sites within its network fall under the blacklist conditions it is possible the rest of the sites hosted by that ISP would be inaccessible to Australian users. This could greatly limit Australia’s ability to engage in e-commerce activity, as noted in a report by CSIRO (McCrea et al.1998). Both levels of filtering and in particular when they are used in conjunction with one another, lead to drops in speed of between 21 per cent and 86 per cent (Moses. 2008). The impact of this would reach far beyond censoring material that is deemed adult in content and this would mean a significant technological back step for Australia.

Moreover, Australia is already years behind both the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to e-commerce capability. As we dive further into economic turmoil and spending tightens people will go online to purchase items. This is highlighted by Roper‟s (2008) statement that

“As tight budgets and poor weather keep people at home where they can shop online for bargains. Clothing and footwear sales were the biggest losers in physical stores in June, with sales either flat or lower than last year despite heavy and widespread discounting. However, online they were big winners. Internet clothing sales were up 32%, while lingerie sales rose by 37% and footwear 38%.”

Hence, if Australia wishes to maintain its position or advance in the increasingly competitive international market, it cannot afford to embrace technology that will inhibit its ability to operate in the technologically driven world of e-commerce. This need for e-commerce extends beyond retail services, as more and more international business relies heavily upon digital communication as the means by which it processes every step of the transaction cycle.

In addition to this, from a moral standpoint the internet poses an interesting dichotomy in that on one hand, it represents the ultimate freedom from government censorship and allows the closest thing to true freedom of speech. In the other however, moral decency requires some level of censorship be applied to protect the defenceless and vulnerable, such as children. CSIRO argues that in order to correctly deal with child protection there needs to be a combined action plan between international agencies, working at a local level to shut down and prevent child-pornography from being hosted on local servers, which they assert „can easily be identified’ (McCrea et al.1998. pp. 39-40). At a local level filters are not needed as the local law enforcement have the right to shutdown servers that contain illegal material. To protect children from international material hosted on the servers of nations not willing to enter, a combination of home based filters and a national education plan aimed at parents would work to protect children, without impacting our national infrastructure in the manner the current proposal will.

Therefore in conclusion, if Australia wants to remain a technologically competitive nation in the global business arena, then alternatives to the currently proposed ‘clean feed’ system will need to be developed. This paper has argued that it will impede not only on our rights and freedoms, but on our nations technological and economical growth, and the proposal must be reconsidered. This is adeptly summarised by Slattery (2008) who stated states “I would have thought this issue is of such importance that the Government would spend a little more time considering the repercussions of imposing ‘blanket decisions’ without appropriate consultation. Much like blanket guarantees on bank deposits, these well-intended decisions will have serious implications and unintended consequences on those who the Government is trying to protect.”

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