Australian Internet Censorship

My take on the “Clean Feed” filter, aka the “Rudd Filter”.

But first this.

A 2006 UQ study found that road accidents, more than 25,000 serious injury accidents each year, cost Australia $17 billion each year. That’s about 68 serious injuries everyday.

Drunk driving is illegal. It can kill yourself, and it can kill others. The Rudd Filter would be like breath testing every driver every time they get into a car, tested not by the police, but by the RTA. Technology-wise, there are devices which can be installed in a car, where you need to blow into first, before the car starts. The cost to a new car would be minimal. Problem solved. No more drunk drivers. Or the drunk driver asks a ‘friend’ (friends don’t let friends drive drunk) to blow for him, and of he goes, circumventing the filter. Then the filter could be adjusted to breathe into the device every 30, 10 or 5 minutes, so you need someone sober with you to keep driving. But that would be very annoying 98% of the time you are driving around alone, doing the shopping or whatever. It would really slow you down. Because of course, you need to stop by the side of the road the blow into the device, you can’t do it while driving. Maybe we could blow up some balloons early in the evening, and keep them on the back seat of the car…

Speeding is illegal. It can kill yourself, and it can kill others. The Rudd Filter would be like installing a black box (think airplane black box) into your car to monitor your speed. It needs to have GPS functionality too, so it knows where you are in order to adjust the speed limit. It also knows about time, so when you’re near a school at school times, it slows you down accordingly. It needs communication capabilities so it can update itself when situations change. And to make sure your road tax is being payed, as well as checking for having valid insurance. And it can communicate with traffic lights, so when it turns orange, the car slows down to stop, in stead of accelerating to make sure you get through. It also keeps an eye on total weight of the car, and number of passengers, to prevent over-crowding of the car. The black box also keeps tabs on your breaks, your tires, your lights and the oil level, keeping your car in perfect order. Perfect. The technologies exist, they only need to be poured into one small device. No more speeding, no more running red lights, no more illegal parking, no dodgy breaks or failing break lights. That is until someone finds a way to update its firmware or installs a mod chip on his black box which effectively tunnels all real-time information through the device, letting the device think it is parked. They would have free reign on the roads, and we still need police to catch them, and they would still kill children crossing the road.

Silly comparison?
How do the numbers stack up, car drivers vs internet connections?
Deadly or serious car accidents vs illegal internet activity?

Back to the issue at hand, the actual Rudd Filter proposal.
Protect the children, block illegal content. Lofty goals for sure. Check out these statistics in regard to children using the Internet.
A blacklist of illegal content is already being used by ACMA (containing 3,200+ web pages) to take down illegal content hosted on Australian servers. Senator Conroy wants to take it one step further, no actually two steps further. Not only does he want to filter internet traffic at the ISP level based on a blacklist (of known illegal internet addresses), which is already in use in the UK, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden, and at a couple of thousand addresses doesn’t really pose a problem; but he wants to dynamically filter all internet traffic based on content analysis, on words and image within the responding page.
A blacklist of illegal internet addresses is pretty straight forward. A user requests an address, that’s checked against the list, all OK, continue. Personally I use OpenDNS to block “questionable” content on my free open network. People who are looking for that, might as well pay for their own internet connection. Problem is that it blocks whole domains. You can’t block just a single page of, let’s say Facebook, you need to block Facebook all together, resulting in massive collateral damage. Still, blocking domains doesn’t help when the user knows the IP (numerical) address. Blocking the IP address doesn’t help because one IP address can block a whole lot of domains.
So that’s why they want to do it dynamically, based on what a particular page contains in words and pictures, and compare that to signatures, telltale signs of bad content. That’s some nifty shizz. A picture deemed illegal based on % of “flesh” tone and body shape, the technology in use on for example Google Image search, might be filtered out of an online article on a domain, in stead of blocking the whole domain. This needs to happen in real-time. Again, that won’t work on a secure HTTPS connection (like when connecting to your bank), as content over the wire is encrypted and can’t be inspected. Doing content inspection for all traffic coming into Australia will require some beefy hardware to keep up, incurring extra costs for ISPs, passing it on to their customers, while still slowing things down.
And then the Internet is more than web pages. It’s email, Usenet, peer-2-peer downloads, instant messenger protocols, voice-over-IP,… These filters won’t handle that traffic. And it won’t protect children from adult predators either.
Haven’t we learned anything from Spam filters? Let’s block all “viagra” mails. We still got “v1agra” in our inbox.
Haven’t we learned from phishing scammers (trying to get our banking details), using fast-flux domains and domain tasting?
Don’t they know what VPN’s are (like when connecting securely from home to your office), or anonymous proxy servers? Or steganography?
Or even Google Translate as a proxy?

As it turns out, the original Clean Feed proposal is based on 20,000 petitions gathered through churches, hardly representative for the whole of Australia. You could easily get 20,000 petitions gathered through pubs to get rid of the smoking ban too.
To get the policy into legislation, Senator Conroy will need the support of some independent senators, who have their own agenda, and this is where the sh*t really hits the fan. Minority pressure groups influencing policy to a degree that it affects everyone. Today it is porn and international gambling sites. Tomorrow it is a religiously offending cartoons, bad product reviews, citizen journalism (blogs illegal in Italy),… It is just a matter of time, what is legal today, may not be tomorrow. Games deemed illegal in Australia, as in without classification: “throughout Australia it is illegal to sell, to adults, any computer game unless it is classified suitable for a 15 year old“, are still being traded through grey imports. Will we soon need age verification for every page we visit, deemed unsuitable for 14 year olds or younger?

The Clean Feed filter will result in a false sense of security, as it accomplishes little, and is very costly and very ineffective. It creates more problems than it solves. It stifles innovation and progress. People, children and their parents alike, need to be educated. Yes, ISP’s can help with that. They could be “parent friendly” ISP’s, providing guides, and DNS based filters like the ones used in the UK or the Scandinavian countries. Parents should be parenting their children, take responsibility, in stead of brushing it of. Create non-admin accounts on their family pc’s (you don’t want your kids to install malware either, do you?), use decent internet browsers, keep your pc up-to-date, provide MAC filtering and timed access control on (wireless) routers,… Too hard? Read and learn. Or ask friends, colleagues, family. (Or maybe they should get their family friendly Internet at the local McDonald’s?)

The only ones who stand to profit from this filter are the filter vendors, selling millions of dollars of annual licensing, for something which might prevent some accidental encounters, considerably slowing down everyone’s Internet experience, but certainly not blocking any knowledgeable sicko to get his hit.

Maybe we could spend the money better to prevent car accidents, obesity, lung cancer, education. Really.

Need more convincing that a Clean Feed is a bad idea (or at least its execution)? Be informed, read on:
The State of Censorship: Australia
EFA: Labor’s Mandatory ISP Internet Blocking Plan
Great, clear presentation on Internet Filtering (ppt)
Petitions to parliament drove ALP’s Internet filtering policy

Then do something:
No Clean Feed
The Rudd Filter
Somebody Think Of The Children
Then sign an online petition (though I hope there will be one offline soon too):

Of course testing any ISP-based Internet filter is difficult, as you would try to retrieve illegal content…
The only way is to try the Great Firewall of China. It blocks content that’s legal in Western countries, so you’re not breaking any laws (when you lookup lawful content), and check response time and DNS time:
try a news site like http://www.smh.com.au, look at the Chinese and US times (never mind what they mean, just that the higher they are, the slower the Internet), they would be about the same. Now try http://www.amnesty.org. For me at least, times where x2-x3 slower for China.
If you use Firefox you can try the China Channel extension.

And let’s not forget the Beijing Olympics:
“Slow internet major problem at Olympics”

1 Comment

  1. Stilgherrian · Links for 04 November 2008 through 09 November 2008 · November 9, 2008 Reply

    […] Australian Internet Censorship | halans.com: Another powerful analogy to explain why centralised Internet censorship is wrong. […]

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