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Would you like yours filtered?

By Chris Abood - posted Monday, 14 April 2008


For the 100th time, filtering content at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level does not work.

The federal government is currently looking at making ISP’s provide a “clean feed” into your home. However, a clean feed is not 100 per cent clean, can prevent you from accessing legitimate sites and is easily circumvented. Providing a clean feed does not address the major problems: children who are groomed, harassed and bullied via email, social websites, chat rooms and mobile phones.

A more effective way to protect children (and adults) from accessing inappropriate content is for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation that controls website names and addresses, to mandate categorisation of websites, which is controlled through your browser. However, there is no substitute for parental supervision and education.

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Currently, most people try to control what can be accessed via a browser using a filtering system installed onto the home computer. Most filtering systems work by maintaining lists of website addresses that are known to contain content of a particular nature. In effect, they provide their own categorisation of websites, but this is not always successful.

They also search for key phrases and some of the more sophisticated (and more expensive) filters analyse pictures to determine if they are pornographic. However, this approach can lead to false positives, for instance determining that a picture of a breast is deemed pornographic even though it is displayed as part of a breast-feeding information site.

These filters are relatively effective in giving parents control over what is displayed; however these filters are not readily installed correctly and can be bypassed by enterprising youngsters. To properly install and maintain a filtering system on your home PC requires some expertise and effort. This is perhaps why the previous federal government’s Net Alert program that gave away free filters was not such a success.

The current federal government is looking to mandate filtering content at the ISP level even though customers will (at this stage) have the option of opting out of a clean feed. However, filtered content at the ISP level is easily circumvented such as the use of anonymous proxy servers which bypass your ISP altogether.

Currently, if you wish to visit a website, your web browser would send the request off to your ISP. Your ISP would then consult the local Domain Name Server (DNS), the Internet’s address book, and controlled by ICANN, to find out where to go to access the required website which is housed on a server somewhere on the planet. The website server having received your request will then send you the website page to be displayed on your screen via your ISP.

An anonymous proxy server takes all this up a level. Its like instead of you going to the shop to buy a loaf of bread, you get someone else to buy it for you. To take this analogy further with regards to filtering at the ISP level, your doctor tells the local store they can only sell you wholemeal bread. When you go to your store, they will refuse to give you white bread. So you get someone else to buy you the white bread and ask them to put it in a brown paper bag. To the outside observer, all they see is someone walking into your house with a bag of which they do not know the contents.

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Filtering at the ISP level will also not prevent access to unassigned domain sites (a web server that can only be accessed by typing in an IP address - 64.233.167.99 instead of www.google.com) and web servers accessed directly through portals that use virtual network computing.

It will also not prevent you accessing inappropriate content accessed via news groups, which can be delivered in encrypted form, from direct download sites and via peer-to-peer networks. It has been canvassed that filtering at the ISP level will stop downloading of music and TV shows via peer-to-peer networks such as bittorrent. But this shows a complete ignorance of how peer-to-peer networks operate.

There are also other ways around ISP level filtering. But filtering at the ISP level does raise questions:

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About the Author

Chris Abood is a member of the Liberal Party of Australia and a member of the Australian Computer Society. Besides having a day job, he teaches ICT part time at TAFE. He is concerned with the effects and use of technology within society. These opinions are his own.

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All articles by Chris Abood

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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