Australia’s Internet filter

After a year-long trip that took me to countries such as Syria, Egypt and China where Internet censorship keeps busy a whole bunch of public servants, I was certainly not impressed to learn that Australia was going ahead with an Internet filtering system and that tests were under way. In fact, I originally thought it was a joke! But I wasn’t sure whether I should be amused or concerned.

From my experience of browsing the Web in these countries, the task is futile. For one, censors – computers or humans – are always too late, they simply cannot catch up with the amount of information out there. Even when they do, there are always so many ways around it that I am not sure it is even worth trying. In Syria, it took less than a minute for the guy minding the Internet Cafe in Damascus to give me access to FaceBook (blocked at the time) via one of the numerous proxies they use.

If people go to the trouble of looking for “inappropriate content”, they will also be savvy enough to find a proxy or setup one. I bet that as soon as the Internet filter is declared effective, there will be as many ways to circumvent it posted on the net. And there will always be ways around it, for the simple reason that secure protocols and cryptography cannot be made illegal – otherwise it would be end of secure banking and e-commerce – not withstanding a serious encroachment upon our privacy.

Adverse effects

Without even going into the ethical aspects, I can think of many other adverse effects to an Internet filter scheme:

  • False positives – how many legitimate sites will risk being blocked?
  • Internet Speed, already below the standard of comparable countries – how will this effect the performance of the Internet?
  • The black list, even secret – will it risk becoming a reference list for people looking for Internet content?
  • Censorship creep – how can we ensure than the black list will not be used for blocking other sites? How do we ensure that the scope of the censorship scheme will not be extended to cover other areas which have nothing to do with protecting children from harmful content?
  • More monitoring is less monitoring – will it drive people accessing “illegal content” to tighten their security and anonymity?
  • Blame shifting – How can someone clear their site if it has been a victim of an attack which inserts links to “illegal content”? Would the same happen if your site shares the same IP as a site that has been blocked?
  • And let’s not forget that there is nothing more appealing for teenagers than something they are not allowed to do or see…

Back to when I travelled in Syria, I remember meeting a programmer who also made a living out of software piracy – quite common there due to the US export ban. He explained that most of his work consisted of removing the potential security threats from hacked programs so that he could sell them. Without going at length into computer security, these threats are designed to infect computers so that they propagate links to porn sites, poker sites, and the like; these threats are designed specifically so that legitimate websites are turned into hosts for less legitimate sources, thereby shifting the blame and risk onto people who have nothing to do with it.

A friend of mine was recently blackmailed by an attacker who launched a DoS attack and wanted to include hidden porn and online gaming links on my friend’s portal (which serves thousands of blogs). The site was down for a few hours with all the engineers working frantically to repel the attack.

These two examples are certainly not an excuse for not taking security seriously, but as any administrator knows, anyone can be a victim of these kind of attacks and end up with links to inappropriate content. When you have been battling with a Internet attack, I doubt that you’re in the mood for battling with ACMA to try to get your site removed from the black list.

The Finnish experiment

It is often mentioned that the scheme will cause Australia to join the ranks of North Korea, Burma, Iran, China, Cuba, Belarus and Syria – states which are hardly known for their progressive policies. It is true that when a country finds itself associated with these countries it is generally a sign of bad policy, even if I trust the Australian government a whole lot more than the Syrian one.

But it is interesting to know that Finland also has experimented with the use of an Internet Filter and it seems that the results are less than conclusive. This article on Finnish Internet censorship by EFFI, a Finnish online civil rights organisation, outlines several of the shortcomings; as well as this one. The Finnish scheme seems to have shown several of the side effects that I have listed above: some legitimates sites were blocked; the black list circulated on the Net; and there were plans to include more sites for other reasons (such hate speech, breach of copyright and online gambling), which were not in the scope of the original law.

It is worth noting that the Finnish scheme does not seem to have led to any arrests in relation to child pornography: since most sites blocked are outside of Finland, they cannot be reached by law. The Law however, as it is the case in Australia, is sufficient to prosecute offenders regardless of the presence of an Internet filter.

Little debate, a lot of expense

All that said, I haven’t been able to find much reliable information about the Australian plan apart from the fact that $125.8 million will be dedicated to cyber-safety over the next four years. I have received an email from GetUp without any link to the relevant information. Apart from a couple of articles and opinion pieces from the BBC and ABC, I could not find much detail about the plan either, though a lot of people commented on the subject on the blogosphere.

I tend to believe that there must be more efficient and creative ways of fighting the distribution of inappropriate content online. No-one denies that the Internet brings new challenges to the access of information, but I am sceptical that ISP filtering is an effective way to address the issue.

It will be interesting to see how this debate evolves in Australia, but I wish there was more information on the scheme and a little more debate in the public sphere, before large sums of money are committed to a plan that is legally tricky, ethically debatable and technically impractical.

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3 Responses to “Australia’s Internet filter”

  1. Paperboy Says:

    I am finnish but I live in Sweden so I hadn’t heard about this filtering tests i Finland until I read your(?) comment on Rusty Lime.

    So… thanks for this article, I’ll have to dig deeper into this!
    And–oh yeah, the various countries’ attempts to “filter the internet” are indeed futile.

  2. Christophe Says:

    Hi Paperboy and thanks for your comment.

    I didn’t know about it either until I came back from the Middle East and looked into it. I was quite surprised to see that Finland would try and do this.

    There are a few differences with australia that I didn’t mention though: apparently, the filter is not mandatory in Finland and your Internet is must faster…

  3. » Afterword: Internet speed Says:

    […] my post on Australia’s Internet filter and looking around for other opinions on the subject, it seems that a lot of people were concerned […]

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