A certain Senator in Canberra is hoping for a miracle this Christmas. That’s the only conclusion I can come to when I read that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy expects their live ISP filtering trial to begin before the end of the year. Preferably before 24 December 2008 to be precise.

According to EOI documents released today relating to the live pilot (read them here), ISPs have only until November 18 to lodge questions to the DBCDE about the trial and December 8 to submit an Expression of Interest. That gives the government just over 2 weeks to select which ISPs will take part in the the trial before its planned start date. Now unless Senator Conroy has Santa’s elves working overtime, in the words of The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan, tell him he’s dreamin’.

Before ISP’s play with fire and fit a filter between their customers and the Internet, is it too much to ask that they have time to research exactly what is required from a technical standpoint. The DBCDE’s skimp eight page Technical Testing Framework document sheds little light.

ISPs are invited to participate in the Pilot through two streams:

1. Index filtering only of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) blacklist of prohibited URLs; or

2. The ACMA blacklist plus additional filtering e.g. more extensive index filtering through to dynamic filtering of other unwanted internet content and non web based applications.

The Pilot is seeking to test a range of filtering solutions, using as a minimum filtering based on the ACMA blacklist. If a number of ISPs wish to participate in the Pilot to trial a number of different filtering solutions, their inclusion will be facilitated. We note that some ISPs already provide such filtering solutions and we would welcome participation by those ISPs, as well as ISPs who wish to trial the introduction of a filtering service.


Ideally, a participating ISP would provide a filtering solution to a sample of their customer base. Enex would then be provided with a sample filtered service and ideally a sample unfiltered service from the same participating ISP. If this is not feasible, a ‘before filtering’ and ‘after filtering’ approach may be used.

What we can learn though is that the trials will not accurately account for the proposed National Broadband Network. The pilot aims to assess delivery across internet delivery mediums ranging in speed from 56Kbps through to 12Mbps when at the same time Conroy wants the NBN to deliver speeds of at least 12 megabits per second. According to the Technical Testing Framework, only an assessment or examination will be given to future internet network performance above 12Mbps.

When it comes to over and under-blocking the department is ‘interested in evaluating mechanisms to address over-blocking, including through end user reporting, where a participating ISP is willing to trial such a mechanism. This includes the end-user’s ability to report sites that they believe have been blocked incorrectly and vice-versa (reporting sites that they feel should be blocked).’

The department also acknowledges ‘filtering can be circumvented by motivated people with a sufficient level of technical knowledge’ so that will be tested as well (it takes a real wiz you see).

There’s one big problem with testing over-blocking, under-blocking and circumvention in a trial where customers volunteer to take part — many are likely to be hardcore filtering supporters.  Mark Newton sums it up: ‘Their tests for circumvention, overblocking complaints and underblocking complaints aren’t going to deliver anything like real-world results when the only people using the system are those 2% of “true believers” in any ISP’s customer base who actually want [to trial] it.’

When you consider that and the fact the minimum trial period is six weeks, obtaining real world results seems less important then rushing filters into every house and business across Australia. 

A few weeks back when Senator Scott Ludlam questioned Senator Conroy about filtering, Conroy said his department didn’t have any benchmarks set in regards to what is an acceptable rate of false positives (amongst other things). Now that they intend to start as early as December 24, 2008, one might expect those benchmarks to have been set. I won’t hold my breath.

Other blogger and media coverage

Tech Wired AU: Australian Internet Filtering Expression Of Interest Put Forward

Public Polity: Expressions of interest Released for ISP filtering

The Age: Opposition rises to internet filter (eBay backed lobby group NetChoice steps in)

Australian IT: Canberra calls net filter trial (Telstra undecided)