Reserved Words

May 10, 2010

Senator Conroy – the Internet is special

Filed under: politics,technology — Craig Harvey @ 9:22 pm
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In April 2010, Senator Conroy was quoted by Fairfax media (Sydney Morning Herald, The Age etc.) as asking "Why is the internet special?,"  saying the net was "just a communication and distribution platform" (see article).

Here are my reasons why I believe that the internet is special (and therefore a heavy handed approach to filtering content is unjustified).

The internet simultaneously:

  • hosts audio and video which can be broadcast or narrow cast
  • acts like the postal system (with email replacing letters)
  • acts like the telecommunications system by hosting voice (and video) calls between two or more parties (Skype, instant messaging, ChatRoulette etc)
  • hosts systems for conducting business transactions (a bit like the EFTPOS system, a bit like the postal system in a mail-order analogy)

Other unique features that make it different from any other technology to date:

  • It is truly global – content accessed in one country can be hosted in any other country
  • It has fundamentally lowered the barriers for entry for those who want to publish and distribute material
  • It’s pervasive – accessible from a variety of different devices and locations, not just tied to a desktop computer and a telephone line
  • content is dynamic and easily changed – a web site you saw half an hour ago could be completely different the next time you view it

So why don’t we censor the telecommunications system and the postal systems as well? It would only be fair given the Internet is capable of replicating the functionality of these systems. Imagine a listening device on every phone call that you made that bleeped out any words that would offend the average person – or having all your mail opened and read and ‘cleaned’ before being able to go on to it’s final destination? Sounds ludicrous and is unworkable.

The proposed net filter would work by preventing access to a blacklist of websites. It would only block access to web sites, and would not affect many of the other applications that run on the internet (email, file transfer, instant messaging, peer to peer file sharing etc). It will only block a list of around 350 websites when there are currently over 100 million websites on the internet – accessing any single one of these websites will invoke a ‘check’ to see if it’s not on the banned list of 350. As the banned list grows larger, the slower this ‘check’ gets.

It will not target ‘high volume’ sites like YouTube and Facebook – so it’s not going to filter out stupid comments on Facebook pages or prevent offensive videos being posted on YouTube. There are already mechanisms in place for dealing with that kind of content, so why force a mandatory filter on all of us?

So why push ahead when we already know it’s only going to filter a fraction of the Internet and it’s going to be easily bypassed? Surely it makes more sense to spend the money on law enforcement instead. $43 million (the proposed cost of the filter) would make a lot of difference to the AFP budget in their fight against child sex predators and distributors of child pornography surely.

 

 

 

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March 25, 2010

Conroy fails to defend mandatory internet filter on 7PM Project

Filed under: technology — Craig Harvey @ 10:52 am
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Senator Conroy appeared on The 7PM Project last night (Wednesday 24th March 2010) in an attempt to defend the proposed mandatory ISP level filter. Watch the video below and see if you think he was convincing.

It was typical spin that tried to keep the focus for RC material on child pornography when the scope of RC material is much wider than that. To be fair to Conroy he got talked over a few times by the panellists, who I thought did a half decent job of asking him tough questions.

In this interview Conroy quotes that there are 355 web sites with child pornography ‘in the open’ now that would be on the blacklist. He proposes a contradictory approach of using a filter to block access to those, but using police to get into the peer to peer networks where the majority of this filth is trafficked (and for which the filter will not work). Why not just use the police for all of it Senator? Spend the filter money on the police instead.

Rather than reiterate why I’m opposed to this whole thing, I’m going to point you to this great article debunking the 10 common lies told about the internet filter.

 

 

 

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February 26, 2010

Censorship begins at home for Conroy

Filed under: politics,technology — Craig Harvey @ 6:51 pm
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As reported here, here, here, here and originally discussed here on Whirlpool, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy has censored his own web site to prevent the term ISP Filtering appearing in the site’s tag cloud. Here is a screenshot of what the tag cloud looks like as of 26 Feb 2010:

image

Clicking on any of these terms executes a search on the web site for articles that contain that phrase. This tag cloud is apparently based on frequently search phrases or terms (not generated from actual content). The more popular a search phrase is, the larger it appears in the tag cloud.

But the website has been caught out using some dodgy client side JavaScript code to exclude the term ‘ISP Filtering’ specifically. OK this is not censorship but political spin. But it goes to show that it’s not something that the Minister is keen to have presented to users of the web site. Despite the fact that he is proposing to enforce mandatory ISP level filtering of RC content with no possibility for users to opt out.

You can still search for the term on the web site, it’s just dodgy, embarrassing spin. How can the government be trusted with a secret blacklist of banned sites if this is the kind of thing that they get up to to stifle political debate.

Click here to search for ‘ISP Filtering’ on the Minister’s website.

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February 20, 2010

Follow up – useful info on the proposed government mandatory internet filter

Filed under: technology — Craig Harvey @ 7:38 pm
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Following up from my last post I’ve pieced together a bunch of relevant articles and arguments for anyone interested in some further reading on this issue.

Conroy’s filter will not make the internet safer

A good article by Suzanne Dvorak from the ABC the chief executive of Save the Children in Australia about why the filter will not make children safer. The synopsis is that we’d be better spent teaching our children how to be safe:

The best way to protect children from harm is to teach them to protect themselves. Just as we teach children how to cross the road safely, we must teach them how to safely navigate the internet. We do this by assisting and guiding them in the first instance, teaching them how to identify and avoid danger, and what to do if an unsafe situation occurs. As they mature, we allow them greater freedom.

Google’s submission on mandatory ISP level filtering

From the official Google Australia blog, a post detailing the key points of their submission to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The synopsis is:

  • It would block some important content – the scope of ‘refused classification’ is incredibly wide
  • It removes choices and creates a false sense of security
  • It isn’t effective protecting kids – sexual abuse content is not found on public web sites but in chat rooms and closed peer to peer networks
  • It won’t work for sites such as high volume sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc.

The full submission can be read here (24 pages).

Conroy tells Facebook to boost security

While on Facebook, it appears that Senator Conroy doesn’t quite know how it works and thinks that companies like Facebook can somehow prevent cyber vandalism. As per Google’s point above, it’s not possible for companies like Facebook to moderate and clear all comments posted before they are visible to other users, the systems just wouldn’t work. This particular outrage came after people vandalised a page set up in memory of murdered schoolboy Elliot Fletcher. After hundreds of people left heartfelt messages of grief and support for his family, dickheads started leaving messages that contained pornographic images and other vulgar material.

The article describes this as a hack, but I highly doubt that any hack was involved – it wouldn’t take much for someone to setup a Facebook account under a false name and then leave unsavoury content.

This is the quote attributed to Conroy from the article:

“I think there is a situation where people take Facebook with an enormous amount of trust and they’ve got to clearly explain what went wrong with their security systems, how this was able to happen (and) importantly, how they’re going to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

What has security got to do with it? If people want to post unsavoury content (either with their real accounts or under false names), then security has nothing to do with it. I’m not sure what Senator Conroy expects them to do here, but to me it demonstrates that he doesn’t get it.

The irony is that according to the article Queensland Police contacted Facebook and had the page taken down. Thus proving that there are already mechanisms in place for dealing with dodgy material.

What is the proposed legislation?

We don’t know yet because there has been no draft legislation released by Senator Conroy. But fellow Labor Senator Kate Lundy wants to include a clause that would allow people to opt out of the filter. This implies that Senator Conroy would be proposing legislation that would be mandatory for all. Let’s hope Lundy is successful.

From the speech made by Senator Conroy on Dec 15 2009 it appears that RC content filtering will be mandatory and optional additional filtering will be available through ISPs.

Slippery slope to further censorship

While the proposed filter will start with excluding content that has been refused classification (RC), groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby are already getting excited at the prospect of being able to extend the filter to exclude content that was only rated at R! According to this article even Senator Conroy thinks this is going too far and indicates further legislation will be required to bump up the level of the filter. But once the filter is in place the hurdles to increasing the level of content that is excluded are considerably lower.

The technical limitations

The internet wasn’t designed with content filtering in mind. The sheer volume of web content available today is beyond the capacity for any government to classify. Among the problems are:

  • Secure web sites that use HTTPS such as online banking sites can’t be filtered. The content is encrypted, that’s what makes this technology secure. Sites hosting RC content could simple use HTTPS
  • The filter is based on a list of site addresses. Every request to a web site has to be checked against this list to ensure that the request is not for one of these blacklisted sites. The list could be from 1,000 to 10,000 sites we’ll never really know because it will be secret. The longer the list, the slower the internet will be
  • The filter is targeting websites only. The internet has so many more applications than the world wide webemail, FTP, peer to peer file sharing such as BitTorrent. Unless they start scanning your email attachments, how will they to know if they contain pictures of Miranda Kerr or something much nastier.
  • There are already systems out there called anonymisers that allow users to bypass these filters. They work by using computers overseas to act as proxies and retrieve the content that has been blocked by the Australian ISP. There are also virtual networks like Tor that take this to the next level and help to obscure the identity of the person making the requests.
  • Mandatory ISP level filtering will be less configurable than software installed in your own home.

(With thanks to the Open Internet campaign)

Conclusion

On the whole this just doesn’t seem to add up. We know from the outset that this will only be effective for content hosted on websites and can’t do anything about content on other protocols. So why go to this effort at all?

An education and policing based approach would be more effective because it would be holistic. Parents are still free to install filtering software in their own homes if they so wish (much of which is subject to the same technical limitations as listed above though).

So do something – find out how!


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Australian Government Internet Censorship plans

Filed under: technology — Craig Harvey @ 1:26 pm
Tags: , , ,

OK this is serious. It’s been bubbling along for quite a while now but it looks like the Government and Federal Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy are pretty committed to filtering the internet to prevent any material that is ‘refused classification’ from being accessed in Australia.

Why am I against this?

  • I think it’s being driven by ideology rather than common sense
  • The kind of material that it purports to protect us from isn’t out in the open anyway
  • The onus should be on parents to educate and protect their children while using the internet
  • The list of banned sites will be kept a secret
  • The possiblity for false banning of sites is too high and has already happened (and with a secret list, who will know?)
  • The filters won’t be effective at blocking inappropriate content in social media sites like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook not to mention peer to peer systems like BitTorrent
  • There are already options for parents to protect their families
  • There has been low uptake in the past when the government offered free filtering software (installed locally on home PCs) so why would mandatory filtering for the entire populated be warranted?

This is not about porn, don’t be distracted by that silly Operation TitStorm that just makes filter objectionists look like porn obsessed nutjobs. It’s about wasting government resources trying to reduce available content on the internet to the lowest common denominator.

So if you think it sounds like a bad idea too, head over to http://openinternet.com.au/ to find out more about what you can do. But in a nutshell:

EFAPetition

Update: See follow-up post for more information if you’re interested.

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