Saturday, December 13, 2008

The case against internet censorship

Australian Senator Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, has been trying to introduce a mandatory, ISP-based, filter of the Internet for Australian users.

The filter will be compulsory, will attempt to filter out all material deemed "harmful and inappropriate for children", regardless of whether that material is legal and or available in other formats, will be run via ISP-based dynamic filtering, against a blacklist maintained by the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority).

The proposal by the Labor party, and Senator Conroy in particular, is a disturbing, ineffectual, and wrong-headed move. Despite consistent rhetorical bluff that it will 'combat child pornography', the filter will fail miserably to do so.

Many of the threats faced by children online have very little to do with access to unwanted material, but the government's proposed filter will do nothing against identity, theft, online bullying, etc..

Labor has already made available computer-based filtering software to the public, and families have been slow to take up that offer. Surveys suggest this is not because of lack of awareness or education, but a general unwillingness to censor their own internet usage.

The AMCA blacklist currently contains material that has had a complain lodged against it. To enforce such a blacklist as the Labor policy suggests, increasing the blacklist to all prohibited material, will require a massive increase in staffing. Who will these people be, and to whom will they be accountable? The ACMA is not an organ of government, not responsible to the electorate in any way.

Material deemed unsuitable by the ACMA could include things as broad as 'adult themes', educational material on sexual health, material related to defamation, academic debate of terrorism (Note the case in May of Rizwaan Sabir, arrested in the UK for possession of terrorist materials, a Masters student writing a dissertation on terrorism). Furthermore, despite the best intentions of the government in this matter, if granted, they are laying the legal and technological foundation for vastly undemocratic suppression of civil discourse and freedom of expression. It is telling that the only comparable internet censorship, despite Senator Conroy's claims to the contrary, occurs in China and Iran.

The technical aspects of the proposal are also concerning. An ACMA report on 6 ISP-based filters showed speed impairment from 22-86%, the better filters generally performing slower. One filter even slowing speeds by 22% when not actually performing filtering. These speeds were under closed, ideal conditions. An internet filter for all Australians would likely be far worse in its impact, crippling e-commerce and the like. It will produce a number of false hits, roughly 1 in 100, and ultimately fail to deal with child pornography on the internet, since the majority of such traffic is not web-based at all, but traded in secretive and encrypted forms on peer-to-peer networks and the like. There already exist technical workarounds for the Government's proposal, and those most likely to use them for illegal purposes, will indeed do so. Furthermore, there is a high possibility, even inevitability as some have said, that the black list, which no-one will be able to access, will in fact leak, providing a ready source for those circumventing the technology to access such materials.

Finally, censorship is simply wrong policy in a democracy that claims to value freedom, of speech, discourse, religion, political persuasion, and the like. Attempts to censor the internet smack of so many past attempts to censor, choke, silence people's free and open discussion and consumption of materials. If the government is serious about dealing with the problems of internet child pornography and the like, they would pour serious money into both providing optional computer-based filtering for those who want it, and funding for federal police involved in tracking, arresting, and prosecuting child pornographers.

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