Who would have thought that here, in the dying stages of 2008, we’d be looking back fondly at the Howard government’s failed $84 million porn filter? Remember how hard we laughed when it was cracked within minutes by 16-year-old Tom Wood? And how badly it failed because the very nature of the Internet means that censorship just doesn’t work? You’d think that no government would be stupid enough to make the same mistake again, wouldn’t you? Well, it just goes to show that the government’s penchant for stupidity continues to grow unabated, now that K-Rudd and his geeky sidekick Conroy are planning on forcing mandatory ISP-level filtering of all illegal content, as well as an opt-out filter for “adult” content.
Yes, no matter how ridiculous it seems to any Internet user with even the tiniest morsel of common sense, the Government believes that the Howard porn filter didn’t work because it wasn’t mandatory for all Australians. And so now we as Australians are faced with possibly the single biggest affront to our online freedoms, while the Government decides it needs to follow up on a headline-grabbing election promise that is impossible to enforce.
While 99.9 percent of Gizmodians understand that mandatory internet filtering just can’t work, for that 0.1 percent, here’s why the filter is doomed to fail, and why you should lend your voice to the online activism movement taking the government to task over their foolhardy attempts to censor the net.
The mandatory filter won’t stop all illegal content
Field trials of Internet filters were conducted in Tasmania earlier this year by the ACMA and the full report was submitted to Conroy in June. The results showed a number of different results, all of which should set of alarm bells in any sane human being’s thought processor.
One of the biggest though, is that none of the filters could stop all illegal content 100%. Of course, ask any anti-virus software maker worth their salt and they'll tell you the same thing - black lists of inappropriate sites are almost impossible to maintain. For every new site you find and mark with a big black 'X', another five can spring up instantly. By the time you've found all of those and blacklisted them, you've got 25 more. The best performing filter could only manage 97 per cent accuracy, which means that within 15 clicks of your mouse button you could end up with a face full of fully illegal and inappropriate child pornography.
What's more, the filters can't touch your P2P content, or software like MSN Messenger or Skype. So the criminals who do traffic in illegal content like child pornography are just going to hit bittorrent to trade their illegal content without fear of being blocked or filtered by the government. At the moment, P2P accounts for 60 per cent of Australia's net traffic, which adds up to a hell of a lot that isn't getting filtered. Especially when you consider the other negative effects the filter will have.
The mandatory filter will slow down your already slow broadband connection
Minister Conroy came out swinging with the results of the field survey with statements that one of the tested filters only slowed down the network by two per cent. What he didn't mention was that this was one of the least effective filters. The study found that the more effective the filter, the more it slowed down your net connection. Some of the filters slowed down the network by up to 80 per cent, which is quite simply inexcusable. With speeds that slow, you can forget about any video streaming, flash-rich sites or any other engaging websites. You might as well be on dialup.
The filters block sites that aren't illegal or inappropriate
Another detail from the ACMA's report was that each of the filters blocked sites that weren't inappropriate at all. Between one and six percent of all sites were overblocked, depending on the filter, with most overblocking less than three per cent. Those figures sound pretty low, until you do the math to discover that even at the best percentage, for every million websites, 10,000 will be blocked unfairly. Of the world's estimated 108 million websites (in Feb 2007), that would mean you wouldn't be able to access over one million legitimate sites.
Now imagine the effect on your business if your site was unfairly blocked by this filter. You would not only lose money, but your reputation would also be tarnished. The other aspect is that the government has not informed the public who will be managing the website black list, what the process will be to remove your site from the blacklist, how long it will take to remove your site from the blacklist, and so on. Considering how much the government wants you to sacrifice, the lack of transparency in their policy is offensive.
Setting Up A Mandatory Internet Filter Is Expensive
So far, the government has put aside $44 million for their filter. As time goes on and they realise that it needs even more maintenance and upkeep, that number will grow.
All the experts think this is a stupid idea
Mark Newton is an engineer at Internode. Guy knows his stuff when it comes to the technical aspect of the Internet. And he's blasted the government for pursuing a flawed system of censorship. In his editorial at Online Opinion, he sums up his argument against the filter:
The online community's argument is a simple one:
* there's no problem to solve because actual illegal material on the Internet is so rare that nobody ever finds it;
* even if there was a problem to solve, there's no serious public demand to solve it;
* even if there was a public demand to solve it, none of the solutions proposed by the ALP will be effective, and the Government has handily provided original research to decimate their own case;
* even if they were effective, they'll slow down Internet access and reduce Internet reliability, as shown by the same original research released by the Minister on July 22;
* even if the proposed solutions had perfect performance and reliability, none of them are affordable;
* even if they were affordable, they'll be implemented terribly by the same underclass of bureaucrat that deemed Mohammad Haneef a terrorist, or Bill Henson a pornographer. The salivating of hangers-on like Family First and Nick Xenophon, lobbying to have the blacklist expanded before it's even in force, demonstrate perfectly how open the system will be to political manipulation and lobbying;
* even if they were implemented perfectly by perfect administrators, the blacklists will inevitably leak, be published on the Internet, whereupon they'll fall into the hands of nefarious individuals and consequently enable child abuse all over the world, with the direct assistance of the Commonwealth of Australia; and
* there's no possibility that the blacklists won't leak. Finland's list has already leaked, CyberPatrol's encrypted blacklist is cracked every six months or so. It's delusional to believe that Australia will be any better at securing its officially sanctioned list of Child Porn and Terrorism sites than anyone else. It might take a month, a year, five years, ten years, or two hours. But it will leak, secrets always do. Pressing it into service will be like setting a ticking time bomb, and when it explodes there'll be a thronging multitude of critics pointing at Senator Conroy and saying, "I told you so, you were warned, but you did it anyway".
Also providing arguments against the online filter is Gordon Ross, creator and inventor of the world's first Internet Filter software, Net Nanny. He commented on an interview conducted by TechWired AU with the Electronic Frontiers Australia rep Colin Jacobs. In his comment, he warned:
The inappropriate content for children should be filtered, however, not by the ISP, but by the Parents or guardians of the children. It is not the government's place to do this. Governments should be spending their time funding more education for those who do not understand the dangers on the Internet. Law enforcement also is grossly underfunded and that is where politicians should be concentrating their efforts, in my humble opinion.
And if that's not enough, why not check out this video from ZDNet Australia which interviews Telstra Media's Justin Milne, iiNet's Michael Malone and Internode's Simon Hackett for their thoughts and opinions on ISP-level content filtering. Needless to say, none of them believe that it's a feasible concept. And if these heads of ISPs think it won't work, why does Senator Conroy believe he knows better?
So What Can You Do?
The one incredibly encouraging thing to come out of this whole farce is the effectiveness of grassroots online action against the government's planned internet filter. The Age and the ABC have both reported on just how much the noise being made online is driving attention to the lack of thought in the government's filter policy. And the more people who know how stupid an idea this is, the less likely we'll be forced to endure slower broadband speeds and filtering of perfectly legitimate sites.
The first thing you should do is write a letter to your local Federal MP. Email it, fax it, print it out and post it - just to make sure they receive it. Make sure you voice your disgust at being treated like a child incapable of looking after your own concerns.
The next thing is to follow the dissent. Visit the No Clean Feed website - they logically discuss why the filter is a terrible idea and what can be done to stop it. Another good website is Somebody Think of the Children, plus there are plenty of other sites out there voicing their concern. If you're on Twitter, make sure you follow the #nocleanfeed discussion, as well as actively voicing your opinion on it. Share your disgust on any other forums discussing the situation as well - Whirlpool has quite an extensive discussion n the topic.
Just remember that to win this fight against the absurd stupidity the government seems to be fostering, your voice needs to be added to the choir. It doesn't matter if you don't have the best singing voice, just make sure you sing loud and clear.