We’ll Control Your Internet, Thanks

I’ve been following for quite a while now, the debate regarding the government decision to introduce a filter that will block certain websites from being accessed by users in Australia. If you are unaware of this then you’re not alone as mainstream media, while not disregarding the issue, is not paying a lot of attention to it either.

The idea behind the filter sounds good in theory. Lets protect our children from some of the nasties that are on the Internet as well as making sure that content that would be Refused Classification by the Australian Communications and Media Authority is not available. The main focus of the “Refused Classification” push in selling this idea to the Australian public is child pornography but RC does not just cover illegal or immoral material.

There is already a wide range of content that is refused classification with computer games over a MA15+ rating being the one of the most obvious one. As there are many reasons for something to be “Refused Classification” and not just issues of legality, there is still a lot of material that could be considered RC but still legal to view  so the argument starts to break down here. If that’s the case, why does Senator Stephen Conroy, the minister for Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy think it’s such a great idea.
The answer in this case appears to be vote buying from conservative Christian political parties. It’s also a long way from the opt in filter that was proposed before the election in 2007. No opt out filtered internet [computerworld.com.au]

So while the ideology behind the filter is a great in principle the whole plan is flawed. I have yet to read an article, letter to the editor or blog post from one technical expert that agrees with the report that states that the filter will not impact on Internet speed and cost.

The filter underwent testing on a small scale through nine of Australia’s larger ISP’s and the filter providers are confident that it is scalable.  All responses from network technicians state that this is unlikely and the more the filtering occurs the more there will be degradation to the network. Another technician states that routeing filters are only effective up to a specific number of URL rules and that as the list grows, these filters will become unstable and break.
Web filter will compromise national broadband network, say providers
Why the Internet filter won’t work [smh.com.au]
Overview / Summary AU Gov’t Mandatory ISP Blocking/Censorship Plan [libertus.net]
Comment on Crikey article “Dear Crikey, here’s why you’re wrong [crikey.com]
Fatal flaws in website censorship plan, says report [smh.com.au]
Internet Filtering gets some scrutiny [nocleanfeed.com]
De-hyping the blacklist [nocleanfeed.com]

By far though, the biggest criticism is that the filter does not address the areas that are actually a problem, such as Peer to Peer networks,  Instant Messenger services and a whole range of other Internet protocols such as VPN or proxy servers. Furthermore any websites that contain material that is questionable is most likely to have already been shut down by the time it makes it to the filter list or will change URL’s to bypass the block.

To fully prevent access to the kind of content that Sen. Conroy is wanting, a much harsher filtering regime would be required –

“Implementing a simple ‘black-list’ filter can never work – just ask the Chinese and the highly porous “Great Firewall of China.”  What we need to do is become much more aggressive.  Here’s how.”
David Heath – IT Wire

As mentioned already, as the filter only affects http traffic (or the World Wide Web), the physical location of the server and the traffic on it is fairly easy to trace, so reporting websites that may contain questionable material is most likely to have already been reported to law enforcement agencies and  shut down. All this  before it even makes it to the filter list.
Websites on the list would be easy to view (by the governments own admission) by using a proxy server to access the content. If you think this sounds difficult, it isn’t – Just ask any teenager

You should be afraid that the government is going to censor the Internet. This is a secret list and you will not know what content is on it and any claim by the government that they absolutely will not use the list for anything except RC material should be taken as a politicians promise.
Do you trust your government, or any government for that matter, to act 100% in the best interest of the people regardless of their own interests. At what point does this secret list expand to include material that is damaging to the government. It concerns me is that the truth of a  politician  is often different to actual truth,  twisted, using clever and subtly crafted language. Furthermore, a truth now may not be the same “truth” in the future.
Open letter to Australia’s Prime Minister [rsf.org]

Obviously the need to keep the list a secret is to protect people however the original testing blacklist was leaked and many media outlets were able to obtain copies. The list has not been made public as it “constitutes a condensed encyclopedia of depravity and potentially very dangerous material” and would be “the concerned parent’s worst nightmare as curious children would inevitably seek it out.”

“But about half of the sites on the list are not related to child porn and include a slew of online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.”
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2009/03/19/1237054961100.html [smh.com.au]

Trying to find a copy of the blacklist may prove fruitless as the content  is illegal to publish or link to in Australia  with fines of up to $11,000 a day for contraventions
http://www.webpronews.com/topnews/2009/03/20/australias-internet-blacklist-revealed (webpronews.com).

If you think that the government will not censor any website other than the RC categories that they are claiming, consider the fate of protest website stephenconway.com.au. Online for just two days this site was taken down by the auDA, the  policy authority and industry self-regulatory body for the .au domain space. The auDA state that they removed the domain after an internal check and that no request from the government was made however the biggest concern is the speed in which the domain was disabled.

To register an .au domain you need to have a legitimate reason for using the domain. Sapia Pty Ltd, who registered the domain could argue political parody as close substantial relationship but that would be highly unlikely to be acceptable. The auDA argue that the domain does not meet the criteria of an .au domain registration and took the domain down. This is not unjustifiable as their role is to protect the .au domain space from incorrect domain registrations.

What is unusual in this case is the speed in which the domain was removed. It is normal for a registrant to have a week to reply and the process of taking a domain down can be several weeks. In the case of stephenconroy.com.au it was three hours and, while the auDA suggest that different situations call for different responses, the rapid removal of the site has only created conspiracy theories and, despite claims to the contrary, reeks of government intervention.
Current Stephen Conroy protest site [stephen-conroy.com]
auDA claims no request to remove stephenconroy.com.au [zdnet.com.au]
Conroy Parody site shut down suddenly [apcmag.com]
StephenConroy.com.au vs auDA – the stoush continues [itwire.com]
Oz anti-censorship site is censored [theregister.co.uk]
The swift takedown of stephenconroy.com.au [crikey.com.au]

More attempted censorship
Filtering out the fury: how government tried to gag web censor critics [smh.com.au]

If you’re not with us…
As this filter plan is currently drawing heavy fire from bloggers, networking technicians, ISP’s and many ordinary people,  the government is choosing to deflect any criticism of its plans by suggesting that being against the filter must mean that you’re a pervert or you have some underlying reason for wanting to visit this kind of content.
poll results [smh.com.au]
This is simply not the case as most people who raise concerns base it on technical reasons or a fear that government will use it for other censorship is that, once in place, the filters will damage our ability to successfully access the Internet, that some sites that are legitimate may become unavailable if the government does not agree with the viewpoints. Euthanasia, abortion and religious views certainly could be amongst such sites.

Finally, I’d like you to consider this. Recently in the UK a 52 year old man was using Facebook to contact an 11 year old girl. The girl told her parents and they took over her online profile and, after reporting it to the police, used it to track him down.

Clearly this was good thinking by the parents but as Facebook was used as a vessel for child exploitation it’s clear that, for the governments filter to be effective, social networking sites such as Facebook and myspace will need to be blocked.

Of course it’s unlikely this will actually happen because these sites are too prolific for them to suddenly disappear so it begs the question – If a child is more likely to make contact with a predator on a site like Facebook than accidentally stumble across child pornography on the Internet, what is the validity of having a filter. Wouldn’t it be better to use the money invested in this to pro-actively target people who are engaging in this kind of activity.
Facebook, like other large portals will protect their interests by protecting their users from dangerous content or nefarious users.
Facebook gives sex offenders the boot [msn.com]

Further Reading
Electronic Frontiers Australia

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