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.

No comments: