On Internet Filtering in Australia

I read with dismay this week about the plan to offer all Australian internet users a content filter provided by their ISP. While originally there was to be an opt-out for this, it appears this is actually a switch from a supposed “clean feed” to a core list of illegal material. If the plans go ahead as mooted, Australians will not be able to avoid some form of government mandated internet filtering. (I’m sure there’s a pun here on Great Barrier Reef, Great Barrier of Grief is the best I can think of, please post a comment if you think of a better one).

The incorrect facts and rhetoric I’ve heard peddled got me riled, the Minister responsible says those who don’t want filtering (paraphrased) “want to let people access child porn”. He states that many countries, including the UK, already have such a system in place. During the interviews he doesn’t like the most obvious comparison of China who have the most notorious system, the “great firewall of China”. In the UK, according to the IWF/Hansard 95% of broadband connections block the sites listed by the IWF, which only concerns images of child abuse.

The idea of the system is pointless for so many reasons, but the following stick out for me:

  • False negatives will mean that the “clean feed” never will be entirely safe. It also can’t protect from many threats, including children being grooming on chatrooms, and the sharing of inappropriate personal information.
  • False positives will potentially mean that people can’t access legitimate information, or information hosted on the same server as “objectionable” content.
  • Ineffective as much of the harmful material that they want to limit access lives on darknets, peer-to-peer services, or is encrypted – so an upstream filtering proxy won’t prevent anyone determined from accessing it.
  • Easily bypassed as the China experience has shown. Anyone who wants to get past the proxy is able to (using VPN, TOR, etc). Given how much more savvy younger users tend to be than their parents, who are the ones likely to understand these workarounds?
  • Expensive for ISPs to implement another level of trans-proxying and traffic management. Will this be a new barrier of entry to the market?
  • Government logging is made an awful lot easier with servers running government approved software embedded in ISPs, with integration with the ISP’s authentication systems – the government could potentially have a complete history of what connections have browsed to, tagged with account details.
  • Performance reducing the already sluggish internet hanging on the end of a relatively thin bit of electric string, do users really want more latency added to their browsing?

The internet is a wonderful resource but has bad elements on it. Safe internet use requires a broader strategy than a single tool, the first step of which is putting the computer in a room where adults can supervise. Machine based filtering can help, and detect activity an upstream proxy can’t, but can never address everything. The strategy to protect children also needs to empower them: explaining that not everything on the internet is what it appears, and teaching them about being a geek, i.e. don’t click on links in spam, be slightly paranoid and protective of your personal information. (That said there’s probably another argument that this is less relevant now, and the problem isn’t that your mother’s maiden name is easy to get hold of from Facebook, the problem is that banks/utilities still think it’s a secure question).

While the goal of preventing access to illegal content is a valid one, and nobody would ever condone the illicit content covered in the core proposal – the idea of a government mandated filters that ultimately won’t even stop all access to the illegal material is worrying. These filters will have knock-ons for legitimate users in terms of false positives and performance detriments.

It’s especially concerning given that some fringe parties holding casting votes in the senate have even more “comprehensive” ideas of what should be banned (gambling sites have been mentioned). While that isn’t part of the government’s proposal today, whenever infrastructure and legislation like this is put in place scope creep take place – witness the UK recent seizing of Iceland’s assets under Anti-Terror legislation during banking crisis.

I leave Australia in a few months, I may yet return, but moves like this make me less keen to.

Details of the campaign against this.


HDMI was sold as a next generation connector, having used it a bit recently, some of the omissions surprise me.

  1. Explicit support for Audio and Video synchronisation only appeared in version 1.3. The forth revision of the standard. That’s a pretty big omission for a next generation audio-video connector; in the meantime every device seems to have optional delay values to tweak the setup.
  2. More generally the audio support is lacking. While you can deliver multiple audio formats, more with each revision, there isn’t (at least in early revisions) a way of sending both surround sound (AC3, DTS or better) and simple 2 channel PCM stereo at the same time. Devices have to elect which to send, and while some form of auto-negotiation is possible, devices like the HD TiVo require you to choose which form you send. And while your Amplifier can decode AC3/DTS, your TV potentially can’t. If the standard had just said from the beginning that you always send 2 channel PCM as a fallback/base level, and also any better standard if available, no negotiation or configuration would be needed.One workaround is to send Stereo audio to the HDMI connector, and send the AC3 audio out over S/PDIF connection, and get the surround sound amplifier to decode this. And then adjust various delays to provide lip-sync again. This is just faff that could so easily have been avoided by sending both, the connector is not lacking in bandwidth for audio.
  3. The inclusion of HDCP to provide the movie studios a misplaced sense of safety that content is protected. In reality all it does is cause sporadic errors when your Source, Amp and TV fail the negotiation and require you to power cycle everything. Meanwhile in the background is the threat that some studio somewhere could deem your TV insecure, and your expensive flat panel on the wall is prevented from showing certain HD content.

Having spent many years trying to get overly complicated SCART setups to work, I hoped that HDMI would be much better, and while impressed at the quality of HD, I’m disappointed at the level of user intervention and forethought required when they are setting equipment up, much of which could be avoided if some more pragmatic decisions were taken at the initial design meetings.

paper saving

Until we really are paperless, a simple idea to save paper when printing out emails.

While we’re meant to be in the era of the paperless office, I still print more than I’d like.

Why don’t Outlook, and web browsers, have something in the pagination engine that detects when there are fewer than 5 lines of text on the final page of a printout. When it finds this, it shrinks the text/spacing (by a level most people wouldn’t notice on a multiple page document) and repaginates it to avoid that overspill and save 1 sheet printing.

This only really works for plain text and HTML, where there isn’t (usually) explicit pagination, but would be largely transparent to users (Word did have a “shrink by 1 page” button, I’m unsure if this still exists, and using it requires user intervention.).

No longer would the phrase “please consider the environment before printing this email” languish alone on its own bit of paper.

Didn’t we decide that Platform Tie-ins don’t work already?

Freesat was announced to much fanfare today, offering more channels than Freeview and also HD. ITV HD is only available on Freesat, are we just reliving the days of ITV Sport on ITV Digital?

Further Update:When ITV HD became a simulcast service ITV1 HD, it was made available on Sky HD. ITV2, 3 & 4 HD are exclusively available to Sky HD customers.

Update: This article was originally published in May 2008. In 2009 Sky deployed a new version of the Sky+ HD firmware, that provided the new look EPG. In addition it added the ability to decode H222 streams, and so with a manual “add channels” Sky HD viewers can now see ITV HD, albeit in a clunky way without the standard EPG.

Today Freesat launched. Arguments as to its relevance will no doubt take place, personally I think that Freesat-from-Sky, while a canny offering by Sky was never a totally ideal switchover choice when there was small print caveats over the lifetime of the smartcards. Should Sky ever move to a 3rd generation of Videoguard smartcards, you weren’t guaranteed a replacement. Given that the move appears to be towards broadcasting in the clear anyway, this perhaps doesn’t matter so much, but as a consumer you want a platform that is expected to gain channels over time, and not lose them.

Freesat has more coverage than Freeview, more channels and tantalisingly for those who’ve bought the big HD Ready flat panels, HD channels. The BBC HD Channel, which quietly moved from channel to service last year, and also the ITV HD offering. The BBC channel is just that, with a channel number and no complications to access, and is already available on Sky HD or any other HD Ready decoder. The ITV hd service isn’t a channel proper though, it’s going to be accessed via a Red Button prompt that will be visible on ITV1 when the programme is in HD.

This is all to keep the service exclusive to Freesat. Viewers will have to go through multiple stages to get to the HD version of their programmes, have annoying on screen graphics and all to prevent the many thousands of Sky HD viewers manually tuning into the service. (It’s being broadcast in the hitherto unseen ITU H222 encapsulation, which means that only Freesat receivers running the special application can access the H264 stream).

So it sounds a bit faffy, and was probably more work for them to set up the encoding for, and reduced their ability to use off-the-shelf monitoring as they could do for a standard DVB service. Will the forthcoming HD PVR models be able to record, pause and rewind the playback of this HD stream? Does the app allow you to control subtitle display and access to audio description? Can you still get to the normal EPG to search and scan what else is on? Is there an annoying “clunk” when you change channels as the app unloads and control is passed back to the core Set Top application?

The upside, is that this channel does not have to be tied to ITV1, so if an ITV2 acquisition was HD, there is nothing to stop them linking on the HD Stream. However, itv.com/hd talks solely about ITV1.

Overall I can’t see how this can be anything less than sub-optimal experience, and history tells us that this doesn’t work. ITV Digital was not saved by hordes of people who signed up to see the ITV Sport Channel. Defections from Virgin Media haven’t really continued after the initial shock of losing the Sky core channels.

By not paying Sky for an EPG listing, you’ve reduced the potential audience for HD Adverts (do these attract a premium in the same way colour does over black & white in print?). Going a stage further and custom encapsulating your content is just missing the point of Freesat isn’t it, that stuff isn’t encrypted as there isn’t much point anymore (what with newer satellites providing footprints more aligned to just the UK and Sky not paying for channels anymore)?

Mark Thomson has also spoke today about offering iPlayer & Kangaroo over the ethernet port on Freesat boxes. I wonder, because I don’t know, if the SD boxes are specified to include H264 compression and DVB-S2 transmission. Doing an iPlayer style app would be much more efficient/feasible over lower bandwidth ADSL lines with H264. If you also included DVB-S2 in the future you could reduce the transponders required, if you were willing to lose older sky boxes that only supported MPEG2 and DVB-S. That only becomes feasible if Freesat takes off in the same way as Freeview has. Only time will tell if Freesat has arrived too late for the party, or has provided a cheaper HD upgrade at the right moment.

First post is always the hardest

I can understand in music difficult second album syndrome, but I think online the first post is the hardest. It’s a statement that you’re raising your head above the parapet ready for your ideas to be judged. This is a good thing, debate can lead to better ideas and ideas are generally a good thing.

Anyway, hello, I’m Gareth Klose, I’ve spent a decade of my life in London working in Media projects, old and new. I’m travelling around the world for a bit, so expect some commentary about bits of the media from places other than the UK.

I’m also available for freelance and contract work, but more on that later.