Finally, progress (of sorts) on the Rudd government’s Internet “filtering” trials, which were meant to have started before Christmas. Well, finished before Christmas, but let’s not belabour the point. Last week Senator Stephen Conroy announced the first batch of six ISPs trialling the filters: Primus Telecommunications (iPrimus), Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Highway 1 and Netforce.

Who, you ask?

Apart from maybe iPrimus, most people won’t know these ISPs. But most people don’t realise that at last count (December 2007) there were 421 ISPs in Australia. Fewer than 30 have more than 10,000 customers. Telstra/BigPond is the biggest with a ball-park 3 million customers, but they’re not taking part. Next is Optus with 1 million, then iiNet with perhaps 300,000, then 418 others scooping up the remaining millions. A very Long Tail indeed.

Some tiny ISPs are “virtual” — someone with an office selling a re-badged service from a bigger player. But others are classic small businesses, owned and run by an old-school network engineer or two, someone to staff the support line and a bookkeeper with maybe one or two thousand customers.

With Conroy saying that “consultations continue with a number of other ISPs that have applied to take part” — apparently some of them want more money — perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into this choice. Speculation that iiNet was excluded because they’ve spoken out against mandatory filtering is unjustified. Probably.

“We’re reasonably confident that they want us to be a part of it… We just need to sort out each other’s expectations,” iiNet’s chief technology officer Greg Bader told NEWS.com.au.

It’s reasonable to choose some of the many smaller players. But it does seem odd to have none of the big three involved, at least so far.
There’s other questions to ask, too…

Why is there further mission creep?

Labor’s pre-election policy said: “A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.” Apart from pointing out again that “offer” isn’t the same as “require everyone to use”, the policy doesn’t mention business premises. Yet three of the ISPs (Highway 1, OMNIconnect and Netforce) are business-only ISPs.

As network engineer Mark Newton says, “If the Government is scope-creeping its plan to include business, I think it has some explaining to do.”
Crikey asked Senator Conroy’s office to confirm that the policy has changed, but all we got was a copy-and-paste explanation of the trials’ purpose.

What is Webshield trialling, exactly?

Webshield already offers “safe filtered internet access”. That’s their “unique selling proposition”, as marketers would say. They and 12 other ISPs already offer content-filtered Internet access as part of the Internet Industry Association’s “Family Friendly ISP” program.

Of course, Senator Conroy will claim all this is only about filtering the ACMA blacklist, and that’s what they’re testing. If he ever actually answers any questions, that is. But as Irene Graham has thoroughly documented, Senator Conroy only pulled back to the ACMA-blacklist-only line when his “you’re a p-dophile” retorts were ignored.

This first batch of ISPs will start testing “once filtering equipment has been obtained and installed” and run for at least six weeks. iPrimus, who seem keen to get moving, say they expect to start filtering in April or early May.

When will we hear about the next batch of ISPs? Will Optus and iiNet be taking part? Senator Conroy’s office, as usual, won’t say.

Peter Fray

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