November 10, 2008

Internet Censorship in Australia

Filed under: Rants — Tags: , , , , — James Bunton @ 7:22 pm

The Australian government is planning to filter the internet to protect children. The idea is to have two tiers of filtering. The first tier is enabled by default for all internet connections and blocks all material considered unsafe for children. Adults will have the option to move to the second tier which is designed to only block illegal material.

This illegal material is initially to be defined as child pornography, but once a system such as this has come into place you can bet that this definition will be stretched. Senator Nick Xenophon is already pushing to block online gambling sites. Others want to block access to information about euthanasia, abortion and other sensitive topics. Additionally any material that is Refused Classification by the OFLC is illegal to distribute in Australia.

In government trials the filter slowed internet access by up to 80%, while still having false positives and false negatives up 1-3%. That’s 1 in every 100 web pages you visit blocked for no reason. As you would expect, the filters with higher blocking accuracy were slower. It’s a trade-off that the government will make on your behalf.

Finally, this just won’t work! The task that the government is attempting to tackle is an impossible one. Doomed to failure for technical and social reasons.

Firstly, and most importantly, Australia does not need this. Parents that wish to rely on filtering software to protect their children already have the option to acquire, free of charge, software that runs on their computer to filter undesirable websites. See NetAlert. The lack of public interest in this scheme should provide some clue to the government about Australia’s lack of interest in web censorship.

Secondly, attempting to place ratings on the billions of web pages that already exist today would seriously tax the resources of any government department. The only reliable way of censoring all the “bad” web pages would be to have an explicit whitelist of “good” pages. This is undesirable for too many reasons to list. This leaves the option of blacklisting pages that are considered “inappropriate”. The government is left with the impossible task of finding all these pages and adding them to a blacklist. Artificial intelligence has not advanced to the point where this can be automated without resulting in a substantial number of false positives. When a website does find itself on the blacklist it can simply move to another host and wait for itself to be blacklisted again.

Finally, from a technical point of view, this scheme completely goes against the spirit of the Internet, which is why it cannot work. China, a government which has also decided against the will of its citizens to implement censorship of the web, fails to do so. What makes the Australian government think that it will do any better? Will this filtering scheme stop anybody who can type into a web browser? No, but it will cost a great deal of money and inconvenience all Australians who use the web. What about websites like YouTube that have mixtures of content? What about Google, it might index illegal content, does it get blocked too? Does this plan even consider the non-web parts of the Internet? Illegal content will still be available over encrypted P2P like BitTorrent. This is impossible to stop unless you plan to disable all connectivity on the Internet except for web browsing. And even then there are (inefficient) work-arounds. Does the government perhaps think that Australians (criminal or not) are not intelligent enough to work around this filter if we want to? Or is this scheme some misguided attempt to protect the population of Australia from Internet “nasties” that they, as adults, are incapable of dealing with alone?

In summary, this “clean feed” is not needed to protect children because parents already have sufficient options to do so. As anybody familiar with networking would say, it is technically impossible to implement reliably and *trivial* for people with minimal technical background to work around. In the best case it would cause minimal inconvenience and cost a great deal of money. In the worst case it would cost a great deal more money and render the Internet useless and Australia’s government the laughing-stock of the technical world, while still only causing minimal inconvenience.