Thursday, 30 October 2008

Read this Blog while you still can

That is, if you live in Australia.

It was about a a year ago that I wrote:
And just in case the Government makes a "minor adjustment" to its policy, or someone decides that you have no need to know what's been blocked, here is something that will protect your children. Protect them from religious or political censorship, something far more harmful to them than unfiltered Internet access under adult supervision.
Now comes this news, from the Courier-Mail:
In internet speak, the Rudd Government’s web filter strategy is an epic fail.

First we had the whole idea of a nationwide web filter thrust upon us; a surprise announcement straight after an election during which it was thoroughly concealed.

The very idea of it is fundamentally flawed, bound to cause outrage and internet disruption, and comes at a cost of $44.2 million over four years.

Now we have the insult to add to that near-fatal injury: it’s mandatory. You can’t opt out completely.
This plan could be devastating. Potential harmful effects include:

* Slowing down internet access between 2 and 87 per cent
* Raising the cost of internet access as ISPs pass on the cost of the filter
* Having websites illegitimately blocked (up to 8 per cent could be banned unfairly)
* Becoming a worldwide laughing stock (the world’s media are already mocking this)
* Having controversial topics banned from view - we don’t even know what will be blocked under this plan yet!

And the benefits? Virtually nil.

This web filter will only block web traffic. Two thirds of the internet traffic is actually not on the web. Much of the bandwidth is tied up in peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that this web filter will not touch. That is also, as it happens, where the filthiest stuff gets traded.

Another unresolved issue is how this web filter will treat secure, https traffic. That involves transactions over a secure server; transactions such as online banking. If the Rudd Government decides to filter those as well, in what is called a Middle Man attack, our privacy and financial records could well be exposed to others. Nice one, Kev.

Despite all of the above points, the Rudd Government plans to embark on “live” trials with volunteer ISPs in the coming months.

Will those trials expose them to the Grand Canyon-sized flaws in this scheme? I hope so. Otherwise you might never read commentaries such as this.
And this site would certainly be blocked. Not because of "political unreliability", but because the subject matter of many of my posts will trigger flags in even the better designed filters for "objectionable content".

From Electronic Frontiers Australia:
Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) today labelled a recent government trial of ISP-based Internet filtering a failure.

The recently released ACMA report entitled “Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filtering” showed that of the six unnamed ISP-based filters evaluated:
  • One filter caused a 22% drop in speed even when it was *not* performing filtering;
  • Only one of the six filters had an acceptable level of performance (a drop of 2% in a laboratory trial), the others causing drops in speed of between 21% and 86%;
  • The most accurate filters were often the slowest;
  • All filters tested had problems with under-blocking, allowing access to between 2% and 13% of material that they should have blocked; and
  • All filters tested had serious problems with over-blocking, wrongly blocking access to between 1.3% and 7.8% of the websites tested.
The worst thing is that we don't appear to be allowed to know what's being blocked, as I feared. Freedom of Information doesn't cover it. I didn't predict this though, I thought it merely a worrying possibility, not that they'd actually do something like this. I was wrong, obviously. Here's the EFA again :
Most worrying of all is the ever-increasing scope of the filtering scheme. “The definition of inappropriate material has never been well defined,” said Jacobs. “With Government-mandated software monitoring each Internet connection, we expect the scope to expand further as time goes by. How will the Government resist pressure by Family First or other special interest groups to permanently block material considered by some to be harmful?”
But surely, they wouldn't block a site like this would they? Not deliberately? They're just after Child Porn and the like. Aren't they? Well... here's what was reported by in the Senate Estimates Committee:
The Federal Government is planning to make internet censorship compulsory for all Australians and could ban controversial websites on euthanasia or anorexia.

Australia's level of net censorship will put it in the same league as countries including China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea, and the Government will not let users opt out of the proposed national internet filter when it is introduced.
Senator Conroy said it was not known what content the mandatory filter would bar, with euthanasia or pro-anorexia sites on the chopping block.
And from the SMH:
In Senate Estimates, Senator Ludlam expressed concern that all sorts of politically-sensitive material could be added to the block list and otherwise legitimate sites - for example, YouTube - could be rendered inaccessible based on content published by users.

"The black list ... can become very grey depending on how expansive the list becomes - euthanasia material, politically related material, material about anorexia. There is a lot of distasteful stuff on the internet," he said.
Stuff about Transsexuality and Intersex conditions, perhaps? Even Politically Related Material?

I don't like the look of this. There's a pattern.
  1. A radical policy that is introduced immediately after an election, by Stealth
  2. An expansion of the plan from "violuntary" to "mandatory", just as the most fearful said there'd be.
  3. A policy that technically puts us in the same league as some very repressive countries, as opposed to the existing censorship in NZ, the UK and others with similar systems.
  4. And bullying by ministers who attempt to make trouble for those who disagree with it.
Oh wait, I didn't mention that last one, did I? Again, from the same SMH article:
Mark Newton, an engineer at Internode, has heavily criticised the Government and its filtering policy on the Whirlpool broadband community forum, going as far as saying it would enable child abuse.

Although Newton identified himself as an employee of Internode - as Whirlpool's rules stipulate - he always maintained his views were personal opinions and not necessarily shared by the company.

He said the plan would inevitably result in significant false positives and degrade internet speeds tremendously. Those views were subsequently widely reported by technology media and blogs.

On Tuesday, a policy advisor for Senator Conroy, Belinda Dennett, wrote an email to Internet Industry Association (IIA) board member Carolyn Dalton in an attempt to pressure Newton into reining in his dissent.

"In your capacity as a board member of the IIA I would like to express my serious concern that a IIA member would be sending out this sort of message. I have also advised [IIA chief executive] Peter Coroneos of my disappointment in this sort of irresponsible behaviour ," the email, read.

It is understood the email was accompanied by a phone call demanding that the message be passed on to senior Internode management.

Newton said he found the bullying "outrageous" and Senator Conroy was "misusing his influence as a Commonwealth Minister to intimidate a private dissenting citizen into silencing his political views".

A spokesman for Senator Conroy said Newton's accusation that the Government was promoting child abuse was "disappointing and irresponsible". He said the purpose of the email was "to establish whether Mr Newton's views were consistent with the IIA position".

Ironically, Senator Conroy has himself accused critics of his filtering policy of supporting child pornography - including Greens Senator Scott Ludlam in Senate Estimates this week.
Labor has been out of power for too long, it's going to their heads. Power tends to corrupt; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However, there's one thing I'm sure of: that if they do every try this on, there will be enough civil disobedience, internal geek subversion of government InfoTech systems, not forgetting external hack attacks, that they won't be able to continue with it. For "technical reasons", naturally.

And the Australian National Library won't be pleased. It wouldn't look good to have internet sites of "national significance" and "lasting cultural value" - like this one - being blocked because some Wowser's got their underwear in topological convolutions.


Anonymous said...

Over the last 8 years, we up here in the States have gone down a fairly dark path. We've started unecessary wars, built evil secret prisons, and the Bush administration has peed on several portions of the Constitution.

We do however, still have the First Amendment.

Oh blessed, blessed First Amendment.

Sean Wright said...

Nice post. Have been watching this one unravel slowly. Conroy is getting a spanking over it on almost every forum, and left himself an out over the technical issue this morning on the Media report. Though I while wait to see what happens before I jump for joy.

Battybattybats said...

Ridiculous, stupid and downright evil.

If they want to stop child abuse they should track down child abusers and child pornographers and lock them up until an effective treatment is found.

Censorship is the one time a 'slippery slope' argument is well borne out by history, and it's a very steep slope indeed.

Anonymous said...

and the internet democracy its past gone....offtopic: great title.

RadarGrrl said...

No,I don't think I'll be reading it anymore. Too many nasty memories.

Anonymous said...

Battybattybats' comment summarizes this disconcerting situation perfectly. The quoted remarks embedded in the blog sound, to me, like a poorly thought out or designed response to a noncritical

It is the opaqueness of the filtering criteria that is the biggest concern. By hiding this information from the general population, the sitting Government is free to change the criteria at will and without notice. For this reason, I feel all Australian citizens have a lot to be deeply concerned about.

David J said...

I've written an article on what I think is the correct strategy for winning this argument. I think it's really important to remember that some people will take the censorship argument seriously and that we need to convince them that this is a bad idea.

Battybattybats said...

Considering the lack of a binding federal bill of rights in Australia not only foes that allow them to do something stupid like this but it also means the substantial vulnerability of the whole democratic system in this country.

Without a guarantee of freedom of political speech and information the whole system is vulnerable to abuse manipulation and collapse.

Only trouble is we have strong opposition to a bill of rights from the likes of Bob Carr whose main arguments are as weak as... hmm I'll avoid the collloquialism but they are poor at best.

Laserlight said...

Boo, do you recall David Koresh and Waco? Ruby Ridge? If you think this has just been the last eight years, your history is a bit biased.