Defend free speech — oppose net censorship plan

April 4, 2009

"I'm a huge supporter of the civil society and the internet is the Wild West at the moment", federal communications minister Stephen Conroy told SBS's Insight on March 31. Conroy and the Labor Party remain determined to fence the internet in, joining a short list of countries that attempt to censor it.

Conroy has come under intense fire for the plan, which was a little-publicised, little-clarified part of the ALP's federal election platform in 2007. The party has promised to clean up the net, filtering out images of child abuse and other illegal material through software mandated on internet service providers (ISPs). So far the plan has been condemned by civil libertarians, and just about everyone who works with the internet, as unworkable and infringing on civil liberties.

The uproar has already had some effect. On Insight, Conroy retreated on some of the worst, and more insane, aspects of the plan. He said the government will supplement the mandatory filter with an optional filter for parents, "if we can make the tech work".

Rather than attempting to censor all offending material, the mandatory filter will block a blacklist of sites. The blacklist will be "mostly" material that has been rated RC (refused classification), and will be compiled on the basis of complaints from the public.

A secret blacklist

It is still unclear what the government considers it has the right to block. The guidelines for what is refused classification varies by material type.

Films are to be refused classification if they deal "with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults", according to the National Classification Code, or if they "promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence". Conroy implied that suicide instructions might be blocked.

The government already has a blacklist of sites, maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), and provided to the makers of commercial PC-based filtering software such as Net Nanny. As well as RC material, X-rated sites and sites that have R-rated content with no warning are eligible for inclusion.

The leak of the ACMA blacklist on the WikiLeaks site in mid-March, however, revealed that sites meeting none of these criteria had been listed, including sites promoting euthanasia, a dentist and a pet-care specialist.

Like the ACMA list, any new list created for the mandatory filter will be secret. Website owners will not be informed that they are being blocked. This government, and any future government, will be able to add sites without public scrutiny, and there is no appeal process. It will set up the infrastructure to enable widespread blocking of the internet.

A technical nightmare

The most likely reason for the government's retreat to a blacklist is the technical nightmare associated with analysis-based filters. Every time someone clicks a web link, a request is sent from their computer to their ISP, and from there eventually to where the website is stored.

With a filter, every time the ISP receives a request for a link, it will have to check it against a filter. A blacklist of a few thousand will be easier, and hence faster, to check than an analysis-based filter that has to interrogate each site users visit.

Analysis-based filters also trade accuracy for speed. Less accurate filters either don't block much at all or block an enormous number of innocuous sites. The optional parental filter is quite likely never to make it out of a trial, given the testing results so far. However, even a blacklist filter is likely to have a noticeable slowing effect on internet services, a prospect that has the nation's IT geeks frothing at the mouth.

The geeks understand how useless the filter is. Any use of a virtual private network will circumvent it. Many Australians use VPNs already, either to access firewalled intranets from home, or to view material not otherwise available, such as US TV shows.

While Conroy bleats about needing to trust the technology will get better, the geeks know the real truth: that while Big Brother's technology does get better, the hackers get better faster, and he'll never catch up.

The government remains committed to trialling both the optional and the mandatory filter in several rounds. However, so far no major ISP is involved in the first phase of the trials.

While the government has claimed they may be in subsequent rounds, ISPs have claimed that the trial will not give accurate results, given that, among other things, it will only be carried out by customers who agree to participate, and will only be applied to very fast connections. IiNet, one of the most prominent ISPs opposing the trial, offered to carry it out on a blind participation basis, but this was rejected, and iiNet subsequently withdrew from the trial.

If the government moves to implement the filter, the Coalition claims it will need legislation. With the Greens, the Coalition and Senator Nick Xenophon opposed, it will be unlikely to pass the Senate.

Protecting children

The amount of time children and teenagers spend on the internet daily has skyrocketed in recent years. The promise of a "safe" internet, no matter how unrealistic, is attractive to many.

It is important to get the problem into perspective. Undoubtedly, there is a wealth of frightening material on the internet: images of child sexual abuse; fake and real snuff films; footage of attacks on the young and the vulnerable.

However, while this material is not hard to find when you go looking, it is not easy to stumble upon either. There is no evidence that children are accessing this material in greater numbers than a few years ago.

The most effective strategy to stop this material is to stop the crimes in the first place. Adequate resourcing and international collaboration aimed at shutting down child abusers and murderers would do far more to protect children than censorship will.

Most offensive material is not transmitted via web pages at all. More than half of internet traffic is via peer-to-peer networks, which the filter won't touch.

Email, file-sharing sites and chat software won't even be on the filter's radar. Yet it is these technologies young people use the most: talking to friends; sharing videos; playing games.

A study by the Internet Safety Technical Taskforce released on December 31 indicated that the problems that teens face online are the same as those offline: particularly bullying.

Like the real world, the internet world is a complex place. It has sexism and racism, violence and abuse, bullying and anger, as well of solidarity and equality, friendship and love, support and understanding. It is no easier to make it safe than it is to make the world safe.

But bridges, not fences, are the places to start.

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