30 January 2009

What is so bad about the internet?

Even the Christians realise that internet filtering is not going to protect kids. The very conservative Christianity Canada has a piece in which it is pointed out that no filtering is a substitute for parental oversight and education. Meanwhile, Crikey again notes that the proponents of mandatory internet filtering are the Christian Right. Why is the ALP, a left wing social democrat party, trying to suck up to them? I suspect the answer is wider than mere partisan loyalties. Governments hate things they cannot control, as witness the fact that the NSA in America eavesdrops on ordinary American's electronic communications with no oversight whatsoever. I suspect the ALP just likes centralised controls, and internet filtering is a useful pretext to expand that way. And while the current opposition parties are against it, weakly, they once did put up a proposal themselves.

The real evil for governments and would-be governments is that there are things happening in their societies they don't control. Governments hate that. Bureaucrats hate not managing these events and politicians hate what a free media might do to them. It's much harder to appease an entire populace than a single newspaper proprietor. So they demonise the internet by making it all about child porn. I have been using the internet for various things since the early 80s, and in that time I have once found a child porn site by accident. I have as much chance of stumbling over bad porn electronically as I do physically in someone's trash.

26 January 2009

Filters are already being used for political purposes

Crikey reports a case in which some people whose ISPs are trialling the ACMA blacklist cannot now reach an anti-abortion site with graphic images. Whatever one thinks of prolifers, their views are not illegal, and should not be censored. If we do not stand up to political censorship now, no matter who is being censored, then we have no standing when those who administer the List (which may not at that time be our preferred set of Good Guys) add our own views.

Crikey also links to a couple of interesting pages at Liberus.Net: One on existing Australian censorship, and another on the Mandatory Filtering laws. At the same time we read that the Coalition is trying to find out why the existing scheme of "family friendly" internet filtering, which was an opt-in scheme, has been discontinued when there is nothing to replace it. If Conroy is being consistent, some filtering must be better than none, right? Not if party politics gets in the way, it seems.

17 January 2009

Filtering mania spreads to Germany, and the Demon screwup

Germany is not known as a bastion of individual freedom and rights - the interests of corporate entities like "the community" and "the state" are deeply protected there. So it comes as no surprise that Germany's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen is working towards an internet filter (where it did come as a surprise that Australia would have one, until you reflect on the lack of protection of individual liberties here as well). Like Conroy, von der Leyen is using the Child Porn Gambit to leverage state control over what can be accessed on the internet.

Meanwhile, Demon, the ISP that filtered out the entire internet archive, has dropped its filter based on the Internet Watch Foundation's blacklist.

... Cable & Wireless - the owners of Demon Internet - now say they have resolved the problem. "We will continue to work closely with the IWF and others to ensure the safety and security of all web users and address any technical issues, should they arise, in order to deliver the best service to our customers," the statement reads. "In this instance, the technical issue, an obscure software bug brought to light by the interaction of our filtering technology and the Internet Archive's servers, has been identified and resolved."

The company did not elaborate, but a senior engineer with the company has provided an explanation on a newsgroup where users have discussed the blocking. According to this post, Demon customers were unable to access large parts of the Wayback Machine because of the way Demon's IWF filter interacted with the web cache used by the IA to speed access.

Because at least one Internet Archive page is blacklisted by the IWF, Demon uses a proxy server each time a user requests info from the IA's servers. If a user requested a page that had not been cached by the IA, Demon's proxy had a way of mucking with the caching process. When creating a url for the cached page, IA servers were inserting the proxy's name: iwfwebfilter.thus.net.

This created cache urls that did not point to webpages. And so, more often than not, Demon customers received error pages when attempting to access the Wayback Machine. And because the bogus urls remained in the IA cache, it meant that error pages appeared when surfers on other ISPs attempted to access the same content.

The Law of Unintended Consequences dictates that such snafus are going to be legion. Similar problems arose when Vodaphone tried to block porn sites for its mobile users. They ended up blocking access to technical sites in the Czech republic. Again, the Child Porn Gambit, according to Vodaphone spokesman in the Czech Republic, Miroslav Cepicky:

"Vodafone's aim is neither censorship nor any limitation of freedom," .... "The opposite. Our activities protect the freedom of children. One of the basic principles of democracy is that freedom of one individual finishes where the freedom of another begins. Child pornography, which we block on the Internet, [violates] children and limits their freedom."

Sure. The response by the EFF's Danny O'Brien bears repeating, again and again:

"We think if you're going to have these kinds of organizations, then we will fight very hard to have the rule of law and due process introduced into them," he said. "In practice, what you have then is that they'll say, 'we'd love to do that but if we publish the list then ne'er-do-wells will get ahold of it and access these sites.' If all it takes for the ne'er-do-wells to access the sites is that list then your blocking system isn't working. It's an impasse. We think systems like this are just a distraction from what we really want, which is actual criminal investigations of people doing bad things."

Basically, filtering is an alternative to law enforcement. It's cheaper, makes people happy, and in the end achieves precisely nothing.

Oh, and on unintended consequences, here's a neat list of six really bad screwups by well-meaning authorities, including the US government, Pakistan, ICANN itself, a Malaysian ISP and a Turkish ISP. Only one of these six was done by hackers or spammers, and the damage was done by ISPs using blacklists.

15 January 2009

While we're thinking of the children, don't worry

The Minister for Clean Feed Censorship has closed down the "opt-in" filtering scheme actually in place, which was established by the previous (Coalition) government. So now while we wait for the mandatory filter to fail its tests and get implemented anyway, parents relying on the prior scheme will find their kids are not "protected". Quelle surprise!

Derek Bambauer of the Brooklyn Law School lays out the conditions that one should assess filtering in a democracy:

First, is a country open about its Internet censorship, and why it restricts information? Second, is the state transparent about what material it filters and what it leaves untouched? Third, how narrow is filtering: how well does the content that is actually blocked - and not blocked - correspond to those criteria?

Finally, to what degree are citizens and Internet users able to participate in decisionmaking about these restrictions, such that censors are accountable? Legitimate censorship is open; transparent about what is banned; effective, yet narrowly targeted; and responsive to the preferences of each state's citizens.

By my reckoning, none of these conditions are being met by Conroy. There is a hidden agenda here that the ALP is not being open about. The public may not know what is being filtered and why. It is necessarily going to give false positives and false negatives. And we cannot participate in the setting of the conditions under which censorship is imposed - that, it seems, is something only the religious originators of this view, mostly Clive Hamilton, a Catholic apologist, can contribute to.

Meantime, the Australian Sex Party actually puts forward some very good arguments against the filter.

According to the Sex Party, there is a clear distinction between X-rated (18+) content, which can be legally traded on DVDs, and child pornography and sexual violence, and the government should not attempt to lump them together in one blacklist.Link

Hear, hear. Look who argues for filtering on the basis of "thinking of the children": Yemen. The only difference appears to be the religion on which it is based.

Moreover, it turns out that in fact the internet is not the vast dangerous place where children are exploited, or at least, no more than anywhere else. The New York Times reports a study [available here] that shows that people are demonising the internet because it's new and unfamiliar and that the evidence is not there to support it. They did the same thing for printing, if I recall my history.

And finally, at least one UK ISP is blocking access to the entire archive of the internet. Why? [Late note: see explanation here]

06 January 2009

Update on filtering

A nice critical essay by David Kennedy at Ovum here gives some of the history and context of moves to filter the internet by governments. He notes that the original proposal the Clean Feed Party - sorry, the ALP - actually took to the election was merely a proposal for a trial, not a mandatory filtering.

In the meantime, the ALP's model of Clean Feeds - PRC China - has vowed to clean up the internet, which means anything the apparatchiks do not like, including pornography, bad taste and mentions on Tienanmin Square, will be removed by legal fiat and punishment for ISPs.

And the US FCC, not exactly a model of internet savvitude, has dropped the proposal to have a mandatory filter on the free broadband proposal. FCC Chair Kevin Martin was pushing it until it became obvious the Obama administration would not support it, nor the Congress:

Despite widespread concerns and public protests, broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy has yet to acknowledge the apparent contradiction between promising faster Internet access and at the same time trying to filter everything that travels down those pipes. Indeed, the plans have been expanded to include P2P transmissions. Perhaps Kelly could give him a call and explain the benefits of an open Internet infrastructure.

Oh, and the minister's blog has closed comments. 1984: Are we there yet?

04 January 2009

The Great Wall of Australia update

Just to keep up to date, the international media are expressing their incredulity that we'd do this, just as similar moves appear in limited form in the UK and USA:

Here's an example of the identification of internet freedom with being pro-kiddie-p_rn reported by Zero Paid: Australian Internet Filtering Plan Will Be Mandatory for Everyone - No Opt-Out. PC Mag has a short piece about Burnham's "Internet Ratings" proposal, making some very good points:

Now, let's look at Burnham's target—the Internet. It's just like movies, TV, and video games, right? Some content, some access points, and a bunch of unsuspecting consumers who need ratings help. Not quite.

The Web is to movies and TV as a Boeing 767 is to a toy plane. Movies and TV have a relatively small amount of content coming through a fixed set of venues (networks, movie theaters, and the like). There are billions of Web sites, and it's just as easy to access the first one as it is the billionth—from any connected location in the world.

What Burnham (and Conroy) fails to realise is that the internet is not broadcasting or publishing in the traditional sense. There is no single transmitter, but hundreds of thousands, and there is no single market, but thousands, with millions, indeed billions of users. For a rating scheme to succeed, or the Great Wall to work, you have to force fit the internet into the traditional publishing model, which effectively means, controlling the transmitters. And since there are none, the common carriers, the ISPs, are the only point of control. So we should expect to see more government attempts to do this sort of thing via the ISPs.