Internet filters, pornography and censorship

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jethro's picture

I have written before at length about the stupidity of the government in attempting to filter the internet against pornography, or illegal content or in fact anything at all.

censor The subject of internet filtering and censorship has raised its ugly head here in Australia again. The internet and media has been buzzing in the last few days with the Rudd government’s minister for Telecommunications Stephen Conroy announcing mandatory internet filters.

This article from ZDNet with interviews from the leaders of three of Australia's largest internet service providers - Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett - summarises the technical legal and ethical arguments the best I have read so far.

For plenty more read the whirlpool forums, Australia independent internet forum.

The worst thing about this whole scenario is it sounds so plausible and nice and moral. Why wouldn’t we want to filter out child porn, bestiality, and other objectionable content and “make the internet safer for our kids”?

The government certainly makes a compelling argument for filtering, but they have completely missed the boat on this.

Apart from the obvious stuff like:

  • how do you decide what to filter out and allow in,
  • what do you allow as “legitimate adult content” and how do you protect children from that,
  • and who will the censors be, there are some other major problems as well.

There are numerous technical reasons that this just wont work. Most legal jurisdictions the world over recognise that prohibition just does not work. Rather prohibition creates black markets, uncontrolled access to illicit substances, quality and health issues (in relation to drugs for example). The internet is not just the WWW or World Wide Web. There are massive amounts of internet traffic that never comes near a web page and this is just zeroes and ones. Encrypted there is no way for a filter to touch traffic from P2P services, other filesharing services, email traffic, messaging traffic, VOIP, IP tunnelling, FTP etc. as a comparison, its like the British customs stopping people at the cliffs of Dover and searching their fishing boats, while ignoring the people driving through the chunnel, flying into Heathrow or Gatwick airports, private airfields or ferrying across from Ireland or the Isle of Man, pretending postage services don’t exist and because there are too many fishing boats to search them all they either hold them up in a line going across the channel or just ignore half of them.

I sincerely hope the technical people of Australia can show the government how stupid they are being, and that the government can back down from its high horse and realise that their ideas for internet filtering are laughable at best, and very very stupid and potentially legally very embarrassing at worst. I can just see the headlines now, “ASIO spies caught out with readily available internet information about planned terrorist attack blocked by their ISP – no warning given to attack”.