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For people who know me, this may seem a disingenous thing for me to blog about, because I've long decried (often loudly) how fundamentally stupid an idea mandatory filtering is. In short, it's a money-pit for government and industry that doesn't actually solve any of the problems it sets out to solve, creates problems for law enforcement that didn't exist before, generates a false sense of security and complacency, and provides governments with a dangerous apparatus to control the flow of information.

But enough of that.

If you're an Australian business, with your website hosted within Australia, mandatory internet filtering in the minimal form proposed is no cause for direct concern. Don't panic, don't run for the hills, and certainly don't, whatever you do, move your site overseas. Here's why:

  1. It's not going to destroy the internet. People will still shop online.

    When it comes into effect, expect media interest for a few days, maybe some mild panic. Expect Youtube to run slower, and possibly Facebook, Myspace, Wikipedia, and others. Expect torrents of angry correspondence from internet users. Expect the minister to tell us everything is going fine, and most likely to continue accusing people who criticise the policy of being pro-child pornography.

    But also expect that when people want to find businesses in your industry, or buy your products, that they'll still Consult The Google. Or even better, your website. Internet use is far too entrenched now to be fundamentally changed by this. People who want to get around the filter will get around the filter, and the vast majority of people will go about their daily doings without change.
     
  2. If you're hosted within Australia, you won't get blacklisted.

    The scope of the filtering regime to be implemented is, in summary, that material hosted overseas that would be Refused Classification (as a result of being excessively explicit, violent, etc) will be blocked by all Internet Service Providers in Australia. Primarily this will cover foreign businesses, however Australian businesses can be affected. When there was a 'leak' a few months back of what may-or-may-not have been the ACMA blacklist, it did contain a few Australian businesses. These fell into two categories:

    • Australian businesses producing RC, potentially RC, or R18+/X18+ content (primarily pornography). For a number of years now, hosting of pornographic material within Australia has been heavily restricted, where legal at all. While whether it's outside the scope of the filter to block some of this material is an open question, it's outside the scope of what I'm talking about here, as this material is not generally hosted within Australia.
       
    • Australian businesses (a tour operator is one mentioned) who were unfortunate enough to have their websites hacked/defaced with RC material, and were hosted overseas.

    Now for the first one, well, yes, you're in trouble, but as I said that's outside the scope of what I'm talking about. For the second group, you're also in trouble, but it's fixable.

    Hacking of websites has become the number one vector for infection of computers with malware. Malware and the porn industry online are closely linked (think of how much spam spruiks porn - sex sells!). Thus if your website is compromised by a malicious third party there's a good chance they're going to use it to push viruses, spam, pornography, or all three. All of which puts you as a website owner at risk of being determined to be publishing RC content and thus blacklisted, completely unwittingly, without notice or easy recourse to have yourself unblocked.

    Here's the kicker, though: This is only a problem if you're hosted overseas. Websites hosted within Australia are subject to takedown notices rather than blacklisting. Your hosting provider (such as us) would receive notification from ACMA of the content subject to a complaint, and a request that it be taken offline. A sensible hosting provider would pass this notice on, and suspend publication of your site until the issue is resolved (or possibly just remove the problematic content). Not a great position to be in, but far better than the alternative - you won't suddenly disappear from the internet for everyone in Australia. At least, not without being told why and given a chance to rectify the situation.
     
  3. The mechanisms proposed will further slow down some or many overseas websites, but won't affect the speed of any domestically-hosted sites.

    The Enex test lab report discussed a few methods of filtering, but the primary (and what seems from my perspective the best way to achieve the stated aims) is what's called "Pass-by" filtering. In a nutshell, this works as follows:

    • Joe Public enters a web address (URL) into their browser, eg http://www.example.com/content/illegal.html

    • Their computer uses DNS to convert www.example.com into an IP Address of a server which hosts that site, e.g. 123.45.67.89

    • The request for that page leaves the customer computer headed for the destination IP Address
       
    • At the ISP, routing hardware is configured to re-route all traffic headed for IP Addresses corresponding to websites with content on the blacklist through their filtering equipment (this is theoretically possible to achieve with zero impact on traffic for other addresses)
       
    • The filtering equipment checks the URL being requested against the blacklist, and blocks the request if the URL is found to be on it
       
    • Otherwise, the traffic is allowed to continue as normal

    What this means is that if you share servers with a website found on the blacklist, all requests for your website will run slower, as they'll pass through the an additional filtering step, even if nothing on your website is blacklisted.

    This is why we can expect that Facebook and Youtube, and other sites with a broad array of user-supplied content, will run slower, as no doubt Facebook and Youtube URLs will (or at least should under the aims of the policy) appear on the blacklist. On the other hand, the Enex report noted that high traffic websites were capable of causing filtering to overload, so ACMA may choose not to blacklist content on such high-traffic sites.

    If you're hosted in Australia, you have no chance of attracting the performance penalty resulting from sharing servers with a blacklisted website, as Australian-hosted sites will not be blacklisted.

    If you're hosted internationally, especially on high volume, low cost hosting providers with huge numbers of clients, expect a performance hit.
     
  4. Access to Australian-hosted sites for international visitors won't be slowed by the filter.

    Notwithstanding filtering regimes present in other countries, the filtering to be implemented here is implemented at an ISP level between the end-user and the rest of the Internet, and not at a hosting provider level or above. This means that it doesn't entail any filtering being put in the way of people overseas trying to view your site.

    ... so your overseas customers aren't affected either.

 

I have grave concerns about this policy, as do many others. But I also accept that like it or not, it's probably going to happen. Fortunately for us, it doesn't directly affect our business, or our customers. And while the stated aims look fine - in theory and/or on paper - I doubt all this will achieve much beyond that the ALP will curry favour with certain influential lobbies, and a large number of Australians - who never would have imagined doing so before - are soon going to become intimately familiar with using overseas proxy servers. And I'm not sure that's a good thing for anyone except proxy service providers.

 

* ...for your website, if you're hosted in Australia.

35 Comments

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