New Zealand's Had An Internet Filter For 2 Years. How's It Working Out?

Have we talked about internet filters before? Yes, just a little. While we've been kicking the issue around, we shouldn't forget our cross-Tasman siblings in New Zealand have had their own filter running since March of 2010. As far as experiments go, Australia really couldn't ask for a more convenient test subject.

Not that NZ's filter is a carbon copy of what was being proposed by our government, but its overarching goals and implementation are similar -- block requests to blacklisted websites, executed by service providers that have opted to use it. According to Tech Liberty NZ, the ISPs running the filter account for over 90 per cent of the country's market.

Mauricio Freitas of NZ's Geekzone recently trawled through various reports and briefings from the Department of Internal Affairs, the government body responsible for administering the filter. In December 2011, the system had clocked the following stats:

Seven ISPs 16.1 million requests blocked 415 records in the filter list 368 unique web sites 25 appeals

Interestingly, the meeting notes state that one official believed the number of requests blocked was "technically correct but too high", as they do not represent individual web pages, but rather all content requests from the offending websites (images, scripts, CSS definitions, etc).

A survey by InternetNZ of 877 Kiwis (from an original sampling of 1000) released just days ago, suggests 66 per cent were in favour of extending the current filter to include "other material". However, the report does not indicate what "other material" might be, leaving it entirely up to the respondents to apply context.

It might have helped if the respondents had been aware if their access was actually being blocked. Almost half were unaware NZ even had an internet filter, while just 19 per cent knew for certain their ISP was applying the filter. 56 per cent felt the decision to be individually filtered should be voluntary.

As to the perceived effectiveness of the filter, age and internet usage had a significant effect on opinions:

• More than half (53%) of those aged 60 years and over felt that it was likely compared with 32% of 18-29 year olds.

• Those who use the Internet more were less likely to believe that filters would help. 36% of these respondents thought it would reduce the chance of abuse and 43% felt it wouldn’t.

Back in 2010, McNair Ingenuity Research conducted a "demographically balanced" survey via phone regarding our own filter. A massive 80 per cent said they'd give a mandatory solution the thumbs-up. This however is moderated by the fact that 70 per cent were concerned the government would use the filter for nefarious, free-speech censoring purposes, while 91 per cent wanted the government to make its filtering blacklist publicly available.

As for New Zealand, will it extend its filter to cover other, undefined materials? There's no clear answer currently, but Freitas's digging into the DIA's documents did turn up this:

Andrew Bowater [Head of Government Relations at Telecom NZ] asked whether the Censorship Compliance Unit can identify whether a person who is being prosecuted has been blocked by the filtering system. Using the hash value of the filtering system's blocking page, Inspectors of Publications now check seized computers to see if it has been blocked by the filtering system. The Department has yet to come across an offender that has been blocked by the filter.

Now, I'm pretty sure that if less than 50 per cent of Kiwis know a filter even exists, then it's likely none of them are aware of the other ways in which the filter can be (and is being) used. While I'm sure most would agree that the ability to identify offenders is a good thing, it does make you wonder how else the technology, and the data it captures, could be utilised.

[InternetNZ via iTWire and Mauricio Freitas]

Image: Eli Duke