Conroy’s filter hits online business

Written on 05 November, 2008 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories News

Online business in Australia is the forgotten casualty in the recent debates over Senator Conroy’s internet filter. This issue isn’t about censorship – it should be about the damage these plans could inflict on the internet economy.

Designed to not only block illegal websites but also to filter to ‘inappropriate’ content, Senator Conroy’s push for a two-tiered ISP filter scheme has come under increasing fire from the industry as having negative effects on the Australian internet space.

There is no doubt blocking illegal sites, such as child pornography, is a desirable strategy. As Senator Conroy has repeatedly stressed, such a filter was included as Labor policy at the last election and no one can convincingly argue for the right of the general public to view illegal websites. But the current filter technology being tested goes much further than Senator Conroy suggests.

The first tier of filtering blocks all illegal content that is held on a government blacklist. This is the filter that Conroy continually refers to in debates. But there is a second level filter, that by default will be applied across all ISPs and individual users will need to apply to unlock their own service from this filter. The purpose of this filter is to block content unsuitable for children – porn, gambling, etc.

The great debate

The problem with the debate as it is currently playing out is that both sides are arguing from different stand-points. Senator Conroy is sticking to the Government’s responsibility to address community concerns over content. Industry critics – such as the ‘No Clean Feed‘ action group – are arguing against deficiencies in the implementation of the filters and the potential damage to the Australian internet. This is why both sides seem to be at loggerheads over the issues.

This is not an issue about censorship. It is about a filter that will be damaging to our online economy. By getting sucked into a debate on censorship, the critics risk backing into a corner as arguing for the right to view porn is always going to be a contentious issue. On the other hand, slowing our already poor broadband speeds and risking damage to ecommerce has a more tangible impact.

Breaking the internet

The tests that have so far been carried out with this technology have revealed some pretty poor results. In the report released by ACMA in July, and reported in The Age, of six ISP-level filter tests, five resulted in download speed reductions between 21% and 86%. Only one achieved an ‘acceptable’ 2% reduction.

While politicians and industry bodies debate and argue and protest, one possible repercussion has been overlooked. Online business has seen a steady increase over the last few years and recently pundits have predicted the internet economy as being potentially more resilient during the tougher economic times ahead.

But will ecommerce remain resilient under the threat of technical interference?

Larry Bloch, CEO of Netregistry, has been an advocate and commentator for the ecommerce industry for over a decade. “The filter could potentially be a drag on ecommerce performance and the online economy. The time it takes for a page to download dramatically affects the sales performance of the website. As it is reasonable to assume that all sites will suffer the same slowdown, this could lead to another form of website optimisation as businesses strive to improve the speed of access for their website.”

It is unlikely we will see the 86% slowdown reported in tests rolled out, but any filtering technology will result in some speed compromises. “Any filtering technology requires processing which has to reduce download speed. This downside has to be balanced against any perceived benefits,” says Bloch.

Small business carries the cost

The problem is that there is a balance to be struck between speed and accuracy. To achieve the best accuracies and fewest false positives (mistakenly blocked websites) resulted in the largest slow downs. The most acceptable slow down of 2% returned the most incorrectly blocked websites.

Neither is a desirable scenario. Either online business contends with slower website loading and the effect that has on sales or there is the greater risk of becoming mistakenly blocked and losing sales while corrections are made to remove the false positive. These small businesses, already under threat from the economic slowdown, will need to bear the brunt of these losses and implement costly procedures to redesign and optimise.

“The suggestions as currently presented are too draconian and too heavily reliant on ISPs. I don’t think they have the balance right.”