Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The futility of censorship in the Internet age

It was a relief to read that at least one advocate of censorship in the current debate, Bernadette McMenamin, has been prepared to quite firmly state that her call for censorship is strictly limited to depictions of child sexual abuse and further that she seems genuinely interested in understanding the anger of the opposing camp. No doubt this maturity and openness to other points of view is symptomatic of the qualities that have seen her receive many plaudits and gongs in her career.

In the interests of mutual understanding, it is probably worth highlighting the things about which we do agree so that we can tightly focus the remaining debate on the issue of difference - the merits of a technical censorship regime.

I think it is fair to assume that everyone in this debate who is not made of straw would strongly agree with the following statements:

  • child sexual abuse is morally wrong and should be illegal
  • making, viewing or distributing depictions of child sexual abuse is morally wrong and should be illegal (legal censorship).

Where we start to differ is with this statement:

  • if an activity is morally wrong and/or illegal then depictions of this activity must be blocked by technical means (technical censorship), whatever the cost and no matter how futile such attempts will be

It is disagreement about this statement which is the major crux of the debate and the source of most of its heat. There are some in the anti-censorship camp that are opposed to technical censorship on philosophical grounds; there are others who are repulsed by the utter futility of any attempt to impose a technical censorship regime ; there are those who are frustrated by the ignorance of those who insist on imposing such a regime despite its inevitable futility.

For reasons of completeness, I will briefly mention one other source of heat in the debate - whether a mandatory technical censorship regime should apply to depictions of legal sexual activity between consenting adults. However, I will leave discussion of this issue to a later post. Again, it is pleasing to learn that Ms McMenamin has made clear she does not wish to participate in this aspect of the debate.

Without wishing to be patronising and in part because Ms McMenamin has demonstrated a willingness to be informed, I would like to explain one reason why any attempt to censor child pornography with an ISP-level filter is utterly futile, no matter how socially desirable such a filter would be.

It comes down to a technology called Tor that Mark Pesce recently introduced into the public debate.

Like many powerful technologies, and like the Internet itself, Tor is a technology which brings with it powerful potential for achieving a social good while at the same time presenting distressing potential for aiding and abetting a social ill.

I will focus briefly on the good Tor can bring, just to illustrate there is some. Then I will focus on the bad so as to shed some light on why ISP-level filtering will be so utterly ineffective at dealing with Internet-based distribution of illegal content.

Tor works by thoroughly disguising the ultimate origin of traffic that hits an Internet server. In this way it can be hard for an observer to prove that a given client even communicated with a server, much less determine what was communicated. This is a far stronger protection than simply hiding the contents of the connection which is what the familiar SSL-encryption provides.

If you are a whistleblower or dissident, the ability to cover your tracks like this can be quite useful. It allows you to send e-mail with a very much reduced risk that the e-mail can be traced, by technical means, back to its physical source.

Technology, however, is agnostic to its uses. The very capability that can be used to assist dissidents and whistleblowers can be used by consumers of illegal content to cover their own tracks, thereby helping them to evade detection and prosecution by law enforcement authorities, even if law enforcement authorities have tapped the server-end of the connection.

It gets worse, however. Tor has a feature called hidden services in which both the client and server remain hidden from each other yet are still be able to exchange content. In this case, law enforcement authorities that are tapping a client connection can't determine the IP address (much less the physical location of) of the server that a client is communicating with. The reason is - the client simply doesn't know and what you don't know, you can't reveal.

It is worth pointing out that Tor's hidden service feature can also be used for good. For example, by dissidents to organise resistance to a tyrannical regime. The fact that the Internet and Tor can be used for both good and bad purposes should be an unremarkable fact about Tor, the Internet and indeed technology in general. This fact has been true of every technology ever invented and it should be no surprise that this remains true for the Internet and technologies like Tor that it has spawned.

The power inherent within technologies like Tor is ultimately why ISP-level filtering is so futile. Technologies like Tor establish overlay networks which are effectively invisible to the regular internet. Even if there was such a thing as a perfect ISP-level filter that blocked every single bit of adult content on the regular Internet, illegal content flowing on a Tor overlay network would still be unimpeded because such traffic is literally indistinguishable from regular encrypted content of innocent nature.

Presumably some people reading this are thinking. Well that's simple - just block and outlaw Tor. The problem is that although you can frustrate a public Tor network you can't realistically block Tor or technologies like Tor, since Tor traffic is indistinguishable from other Internet traffic that is used to secure Internet banking, amongst other things. To defeat Tor you would have to outlaw all use of encryption and then solve the impossible problem of detecting and blocking covertly encrypted traffic.

The Internet itself was designed to route around brutish physical damage which is what makes ISP-level filtering policies technically challenging to implement. Attempts to surveil and censor the Internet have lead to the creation of technologies such as Tor and these make attempts at ISP-level filtering irrelevant, since ISP-level filters effectively can't see Tor-level traffic.

As John Gilmore said, and it really is no joke, "The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it".

If proponents of a technical censorship regime do not believe it is futile, then it incumbent upon them to demonstrate with reasoned argument why this is so. If they are unable to do this they must at least explain why society should commit itself to such an expensive, counter-productive programme in full knowledge of its likely futility.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Attack of the Straw Person

This is an extended response to a Deborah whose identity (and blog) you can determine if you read the rest of the blog. I quote from her recent response to an item on my blog. She found this posting via a comment of mine on her blog, a comment which she subsequently deleted for reasons she attempts to justify below.

Firstly, there is nothing revolutionary about your blog. You want to maintain the status quo on the web--what is revolutionary about that?

Touche. I think most readers would have realised that "Broadbanned Revolution" was a pun that referred to the Government's promised "Broadband Revolution". Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain it to others who don't understand that rather simple play on words.

Secondly, you obviously haven't grasped the concept of CP80 and I recommend you do your research before making such wild accusations. I suggest a thorough reading of the CP80 website.

I haven't grasped the concept of CP80, eh? I haven't read the CP80 website thoroughly, huh? What, pray, is the evidence you present for that absurd claim? I think if you actually read my post, you will find that I acknowledge that it is, in part, a consumer opt-in solution and that this is, indeed, an improvement over the current opt-out proposal of the Australian Government. You will also note that I read it with sufficient thoroughness to highlight an apparent inconsistency - a claim that the proposal will reduce the bandwidth consumed by porn-viewers. Yet, nothing in the technical description suggests that this is, in fact, so. I then suggest that this inconsistency reveals a hidden agenda on the part of the proponents. If you think this analysis is faulty, I encourage you to put forth a reasoned argument why this is so. I leave it for others to judge why you have not chosen to do so.

The CP80 initiative will create Community Ports. All porn and violence will remain on Port80 (the open port), so those of you who want your porn won't have to do anything different to what you are doing now. Because the system will be 'opt-in' you will not have to identify yourselves to any government authority.

In the quote above, you make the patently false claim that port 80 would remain an "Open" port. Read the technology section and look at the screen capture in Figure 8 and you will see that Port 80 is designated as a Community Port. I ask: which of us has read the proposal more thoroughly?

For the record, my exposure to and consumption of online porn is relatively minor. In fact, given the concern that others have demonstrated about the extent of the problem, I'd hazard a guess that it is even less than the proponents of a censorship regime. As a friend said: "What pleasure would a starving man take in a photo of the banquet? And, if one has a seat at the banquet, who needs the photo?". To state this again: my opposition is inspired not by the content that is being blocked but by the mechanism being built to do it and, at least in part, by the obnoxious self-righteousness of those who would block it.

I claim that CP80 is still a censorship proposal. Its proponents propose real legal sanctions for violating the proposed content restrictions on Community Ports. If you don't believe me, I invite you to read the proposal. Just because the domain of censorship is more restricted than all 65535 ports doesn't mean that it isn't censorship.

As I've already explained on my blog and if you did your research on the CP80 website, you would know that this proposal is just like having different channels, like you get on cable TV. No censorship, Jon, just giving internet users a real choice for the first time. Afterall, you wouldn't expect an XXX rated program on a kid's TV channel would you?

Comparing the Internet with a broadcast medium like cable TV simply demonstrates the poverty of your imagination. You insist, no doubt, that this is the only possible analogy that can be drawn. I would counter that this is, in fact, not the case. I would argue that it actually makes far more sense to draw a limited analogy with the physical world.

In the physical world, there are a variety of domains. Some of which are safe for all comers, some of which are not. Individuals can choose to visit unsafe domains or choose not to. Only infrequently in the real world do societies choose to build concrete walls around the "unsafe" domains. The Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin this way, Israel does the same with the West Bank.

CP80 is, I claim, an attempt to corral objectionable content into a porn ghetto whereupon it can be later gassed with traffic shaping. If this was not the case, why would a simple blacklist not be sufficient? Why is there a need to make unsavoury use of port 80 strictly illegal?

Perhaps you object to the extreme analogy? If so, I ask you to respond to the analysis of the quote I mentioned which suggests that the proponents of the CP80 proposal do, indeed, intend that the traffic of porn-viewers be shaped so as to reduce its impact on so-called "normal" consumers.

Consumers of the Internet today currently have the maximum possible choice. You misleadingly claim that CP80 increases choice. It either doesn't change the choice available to consumers (c.f. your statement: "those of you who want your porn won't have to do anything different to what you are doing now") or it reduces it. It certainly doesn't increase it. You and I already have the choice not to consume pornography. It is a mystery to me why you and your kind claim to be completely incapable of exercising it. Is this an unrecognised feature of the censorious personality that needs to be subjected to further scientific analysis?

In regards to your final point, the CP80 is a grassroots initiative started by a group of private citizens. So there is no hidden agenda, Jon. I am not affiliated with any religious or political groups. I am campaigning as a private citizen for the government to investigate the CP80 initiative option. There is nothing more to it than that.

I accept that you have your own reasons for supporting the proposal and that there are no doubt other grassroots supporters of it. I find it interesting that the CP80 website doesn't mention the office holders. From what I can tell, CP80 was initiated by a citizen, Ralph Yorro III, who has close links to the conservative Republican party (Orin Hatch, Mitt Romney) and its office has the same address as a corporation that has a financial interest in net filtering software. Obviously such a corporation stands to gain financially from any legislatively-imposed cleaning of port 80 by ISPs. I ask you to demonstrate that, at its core, CP80 is a grassroots initiative. Where is your evidence of this? Or are you happy to make this assertion in face of evidence that this initiative is sponsored by a corporation that has a vested interest in its adoption?

I notice that you have completely ignored my claim that initiatives such as CP80 are completely irrelevant to the Australian context. This is a serious point, which perhaps explains why you chose to ignore it. Corralling adult content off port 80 in Australia is pointless - Australia already has far stronger laws in place that require sites that host adult content must establish the age of their consumers by shielding such content with a logon prompt - whatever port it it hosted on. Therefore, casual users of the Internet cannot be exposed to pornographic material on Australian-hosted sites. In the US, similar laws to the Australian laws were struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. And, again, unless the whole world adopts the same laws, quarantining port 80 for clean content is pointless. The only viable solution for Australia is a simple opt-in solution whereby consumers delegate blacklist responsibilities to their ISP. I agree with that half of CP80. The part of CP80 I disagree with is the insistence that the Government (or anyone else) is required to censor the content of traffic flowing on port 80.

BTW, this will be my only response, I have no wish to debate this issue with you yet again. No point trying to link to my website either. I no longer approve comments from those who oppose any changes to the Internet, so this group are no longer visiting my blog and you will no longer find support there.

I'll leave others to judge how childish that statement looks. Especially in light of this comment on your blog:

I learned the hard way you can’t have a rational debate in the public domain with these people. The most effective way to deal with this small but vocal group is to deny them a forum where they can confuse others with their scare mongering about censorship.

The main reason you can't have a rational debate with these people is that you refuse to engage in one. In both my attempts to debate you on this issue you have not seriously attempted to rebut my arguments even once. You seem more interested in throwing about wild allegations of poor research than in doing research yourself. And when all that fails, you have that old chestnut to fall back on - censorship.

Your argument is based on your personal opinion. It is your right to voice your opinion, but it doesn't mean the rest of us have to read it.

You are free to maintain a community of yes-people on your blog if that strokes your ego in a particularly pleasurable way. I'd just point out that doing so somewhat undermines your pretence of being an opinion leader with something useful to say. If your arguments can't stand up next to criticisms of those arguments, how good are those arguments?

It amuses me that a proponent of censorship so willingly deploys censorship to defend her own arguments in favour of censorship from scrutiny.

We are blessed indeed that you hold no political power.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

CP80: designed by Americans, for Americans

CP80 is a proposal being promoted in the United States as a means of "cleaning up" the Internet. Under the proposal, it would become illegal, under US law, to host adult content on port 80 and a number of other designated "Community Ports". Individual consumers could then choose to block access to "Open Ports" and to "Community Ports" of IP addresses with non-compliant content. This blocking would be enforced at the ISP-level.

On first glance, this proposal is apparently an improvement over the current Australian Government proposal because it is an opt-in solution for individual consumers. It does, however, impose a censorship regime on the so-called "Community Ports". The proponents of CP80 indicate that parties who violate the content restrictions of "Community Ports" will be liable to prosecution.

It is clear that the intent of this proposal is to drive adult and other non-acceptable content onto other ports where it can then be more easily attacked by traffic shaping and filtering technologies. Evidence that there is a hidden agenda of this kind is clear from this quote:

No longer will non-porn viewing consumers be forced to subsidize porn-viewing consumers—because the average porn-viewing consumer uses a considerably more bandwidth than non-porn viewer.

This statement would be true, if and only if, CP80 also contained an explicitly specified proposal to filter or otherwise shape traffic generated by porn-viewing consumers. However, this is not stated explicitly, which suggests that the proponents do in fact have a hidden agenda to do this, perhaps with a later proposal. Their failure to directly mention this in their current proposal suggests they are afraid of scaring the horses with an explicit proposal to involuntarily filter or shape "Open Ports". Their self-righteous sense of moral indignation, however, has caused them to subconsciously reveal their hand.

The CP80 proposal creates a "zoning" fallacy which suggests that there is a direct correspondence between IP ports and local government zones.

This is a very shoddy analogy. In the real world, if the place next door is zoned in such a way to allow a brothel to operate, then the neighbours of that brothel have their amenity directly and seriously affected. This is not true with adult content distributed over port 80, despite the fear mongering of the pro-censorship lobby.

To be clear, just because a someone else on the Internet is using port 80 to view porn doesn't mean that you have to - your amenity is not anyway affected by what that other person does. The quality of your own Internet experience is directly determined by the regions of the Internet you choose to visit and what you choose to view. The notion that your own amenity will be substantially improved by censoring adult content on port 80 is absurd, since the net change in porn you consume will be zero.

If people want to opt-in to IP address based blacklists of their own choosing, then let them do that. Censoring forces should not expect the forces of freedom to support them in their attempt to shove their moral standards down other peoples throats which is exactly what the policy of traffic shaping is about.

And before you attack me with hysterical claims that it is pornographers who are shoving pornography down everyone else's throats, please step back and take a reality check. If pornography is currently "wheedling" it's way into your household via port 80, it is because you or someone in your household has pulled it there. Pornographic material accessed by HTTP doesn't just appear in your browser. It gets there because the user of the browser is insufficiently careful about which sites they visit. If your innocent children are exposed in this way a PC-based filter will adequately address the issue. If your children are not so innocent to be trusted with a PC-based filter, then lobby your ISP to provide you with a sufficiently totalitarian filter that provides you with the level of censorship you desire - just leave mine alone.

In the Australian context, the CP80 policy is irrelevant. Australia already regulates its own adult content providers by demanding that adult content is shielded by a logon prompt. Admittedly, this doesn't deal with material hosted overseas, but then Australia doesn't have any jurisdictional authority over material hosted there.

From a personal view, my main concern is that a proposal like CP80 would enable mechanisms by which other unsavoury content could be effectively censored by socially regressive forces in the USA. As a hypothetical example, suppose it was deemed that pictures of dead Palestinian babies shot by Israeli soldiers wasn't acceptable on Community Ports. Media organizations would be free to publish such pictures on "Open Ports", but anyone blocking these ports would not receive the images, thereby effectively censoring them from a large proportion of the "morally upstanding" community.

Is that scaremongering? Perhaps, but then the CP80 proposal is very vague about how the acceptable content rules would be determined. It is also very vague about who the ultimate proponents of the initiative are. True, many respectable corporations have put their names to the proposal but it is far from clear that these corporations are the original instigators of the proposal.

I think it is a reasonable question to ask. Who is behind CP80 and what is their agenda?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Deconstructing Stephen Conroy, peddler of filters.

In this article, I analyse the recent announcement by the Australian Government to impose a mandatory filtering requirement on all Internet service providers. I show how the tactics of spin, fear and distortion are used to attack critics of the proposal and I question whether, if child pornography is the target, a policy of improved monitoring might be more effective than one of censorship.

At the moment we view this as an extra safeguard. Wer'e not suggesting for a moment that this is the only thing that the Government should be doing. We have already seen home-based filtering being championed by the previous government, we need education campaigns and we need increased policing. But, as the 16 year old who wasn't an expert computer hacker demonstrated, he could disable the home-based filters in 30 minutes. This is something that parents understand that there is parental responsibility necessary but the Rudd government was elected on a policy that we will be working with the industry to introduce mandatory ISP filtering, so that sites that involve child pornography and truly violent material can be blocked at an ISP-level.

Senator Stephen Conroy, ABC News Radio, 2007/12/31

Senator Conroy motivates the discussion for the need for mandatory ISP-level filtering by using the example of a 16-year old who could subvert PC-based filters in 30 minutes and suggests, by implication, that this is a problem that the Government needs to solve. He then states that mandatory ISP-level filtering is required to block access to "child pornography and truly violent material" as if the two problems are the same thing.

Senator Conroy's attempt to conflate, by juxtaposition, the problem of child access to adult pornography and adult access to child pornography is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. The two problems are very different and require very different solutions. Yet the Government is offering only one blunt solution - mandatory ISP-level filtering for all residential feeds by default

Senator Conroy also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the technical capability of ISP-level filtering - any reasonable ISP-level filter could also be subverted in under 30 minutes, so introducing mandatory ISP-filters will do nothing to prevent childrens' access to adult pornography or adults' access to child pornography. Stronger filters might reasonably do a better job but only totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and China have the power to implement these for the entire population.

The question is reasonably asked: is the Minister proposing an ineffective filter or a totalitarian one? Despite the Minister's pleading to the contrary, there is no such thing as an effective and democratic filter. The Minister must choose between freedom and effectiveness. If he is only offering an ineffective filter, then his policy is fraudulent and deserves to be exposed as such. If he is offering a totalitarian filter, then that too should be exposed.

There is some evidence that the Government wants a totalitarian one. When asked to respond to the charge that Australia was proceeding down a path similar to China and Saudi Arabia he pointedly did not deny the charge. Instead, he tried to evade the charge by calling attention to the most extreme forms of pornography he aims to filter and postured as if this is the sole target of his policy. From this posture, with spin Goebbels would be proud of, he attempted to tar anyone who criticises the policy on free speech grounds as an advocate of free access to child pornography.

Well, we make no apology for wanting to block sites that contain child pornography and truly violent material that is out there. If looking at child pornography is defined a free speech then we are going to take issue with that. We are committed to working with the industry. We are going to fund a trial to see how this can work. We've said that we will find the best possible way to work with the industry to ensure that this disrupts the world of the Internet is as minimal a way as possible. But people shouldn't confuse peddling child pornography with freedom of speech.

The Government's plans are apparently to block a far wider range of material than simply child pornography. If this were not the case, why is there an opt-out option and why did he motivate the discussion by pointing out that children can disable PC-level filters?

Whatever the targets of the Government's policy, its critics on free speech grounds are concerned about the mechanism by which the censorship will be achieved not what material will be blocked. The only person in this debate equating free access to child pornography with free speech is the Minister himself and he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

To be very clear, no-one is arguing that access to child pornography should be free and unrestricted. On the contrary, such access is, and should be, illegal. The debate is about whether a liberal democracy requires such access to be physically blocked by an all-pervasive censorship mechanism that is necessarily opaque and inherently vulnerable to abuse by this and future governments.

The Government's policy also betrays a fundamental lack of trust in the moral integrity of the entire Australian population. A Government that distrusts its citizens is necessarily one that can be justly accused of totalitarian paranoia. Although, as the saying goes, if you have a choice between cock-up and conspiracy, cock-up is usually the better explanation.

The people who peddle this sort of filth are very smart individuals. They spend their time trying to wheedle away into people's homes and push this material onto people.

With these words, the Minister attempts to incite hysteria about the danger of pornography by claiming that pornography is pushed into Australian homes by nefarious peddlers of filth. This is an appalling rhetorical fallacy. If there is pornography in Australian homes today, it is largely there because it was pulled there by willing consumers of it.

While it is true that there is a small risk of receiving an unsolicited invitation to view pornography that is pushed onto unwilling recipients by e-mail, this problem is already quite effectively dealt with by spam filters and the simple mechanism of switching off the "display images" feature of one's e-mail client. Or, rather, not switching it on in the first place. It is also a problem that won't be dealt with by filtering HTTP connections. The fact of the matter is that 99.9% of pornography that enters into Australian homes does so because it is pulled there by consumers who want to view it. Despite the Minister's claims to the contrary you don't have to be very smart to sell pornography - it sells itself. That's why there is so much of it. It is also why any effort to block access to it will be futile.

People who want to consume pornography can and will use the numerous covert channels which are already available. Children who are not intent on subverting an ISP-based filter are already more easily and better protected by existing PC-based filters, since these filters can aggressively deploy content-based analysis which can detect a far broader range of material than a URL blacklist ever will; children who are intent on subverting an ISP-based filter will easily be able do so as anyone who has a basic understanding of the technology knows.

Given the Minister's slippery use of the term "filth", perhaps I have misunderstood which "peddlers of filth" the Minister was talking about in this instance. Perhaps he was only talking about the really evil kind, the peddlers of child pornography. These people are, admittedly, quite smart. They rarely, if ever, conduct mass marketing campaigns for their perverted wares for the very simple reason that to do so would draw unwelcome attention to themselves from law enforcement authorities. So, this kind of filth is even less likely to be pushed into Australian homes. The sad fact of the matter is, if it is there at all, it was pulled there by someone who should be charged under existing legislation. However, while this may be an argument for improved monitoring and effective law-enforcement, it is emphatically not an argument for censorship. In fact, censorship may well be counter-productive since it would cause every deviant who is not already using covert channels to start using them. If this happened, the job of law enforcement would be made even harder than it is today.

If the Minister is really serious about tackling child pornography he should be advocating mechanisms that will effectively confront it. As I suggested above monitoring, not censorship, is likely to be far more effective at dealing with child pornography and censorship may actually be counter-productive. If the Minister really is concerned about protecting children from this scourge, why isn't he advocating the best possible policy for job? Why is he advocating the potentially counter-productive policy of censorship instead?

Is the Minister, in fact, a philterphile *?

* philterphile(n): one whose obsessive totalitarian tendencies leads them to advocate mandatory filtering of everyone else's Internet feed.

I would like to unashamedly request that anyone who can give this analysis a wider distribution than this blog, to please do so. While there is undeniably a vain reason for wanting this, I do somewhat immodestly believe that my arguments are well-reasoned and should be placed in front of as wide an audience as possible.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

An Annotated Response to Deborah Robinson

In her blog posting, which I have quoted in full and annotated here, Deborah Robinson sets forth her advocacy for the Government's proposal to impose mandatory filtering responsibilities on internet service providers. This posting is my response.

On December 31st 2007, Federal Telecommunications Minister, Stephen Conroy announced the government’s plans to introduce a clean internet feed into every home and school in Australia.

Rather than relying on traditional content filtering which uses ‘keywords’ to block websites, the government has elected to create a ‘blacklist’ of websites which are inappropriate for children. This will bypass the problem of inadvertently blocking those websites which are not providing pornography but rather, discussing the issues surrounding pornography, sex and violence. But in a decision that has upset internet civil libertarians Electronic Frontiers Australia, Mr Conroy says that the clean feed will be ‘opt-out’, meaning anyone who wants access to the blacklisted websites will have to contact their Internet Service Provider and ask for unrestricted access to the web.

They could do that, but exercising the opt-out option will only be for individuals like myself who are prepared to stand-up against this proposal and face-off the accusatory stares that advocates of this proposal are so quick to adopt.

I feel that I will have to restate this many, many times:

Our opposition to this proposal is not motivated by the filth they are trying to block, it motivated by the mechanism they are building to do it.

Until you understand and accept this, all your carefully crafted rhetoric will do nothing other than slice the arms off straw men.

You also need to realise that the UK clean feed proposal only targets the most extreme kinds of material. Such a system will do nothing to filter out the vast bulk of pornography that most concerns parents. In other words, if you really are swimming in a sea of porn today, then a system akin the UK clean feed proposal will not empty that sea by one drop. To be of any use, the blacklists would have to be increased by a factor of between 100 and 1000 in size. There is no proof at all that the system would continue to operate efficiently at those volumes, nor any published analysis of how many irritating false positives would be generated.

If you want a clean feed, you have to accept drastic reductions in freedom and performance since you have to start filtering the feed much, much more aggressively than the UK clean feed system attempts to do. You may even have to be prepared to let ISPs filter all your Google searches, so that people cannot access graphic content like the following graphic example using a very simple Google search.

The simple truth of the matter is that you can't have fast and free access to the internet and a clean feed. You can have fast and free access to the internet. or a clean feed, but not both.

I do support the ’opt-out’ system because it will just brings the internet in line with every offline form of media such as; television, newspapers, books, magazines, etc. When we turn off the computer, we have the choice of whether we want ourselves and our kids exposed to pornography and violence. This choice is taken away from us when we enter cyber space. As Traci Beagley from the CP80 initiative so eloquently put it in her response to my articles posted at Australian Women Online:

“Everything from magazines to adult sex shops are regulated. It’s time to do the same with the Internet. If we choose not to enter adult sex shops, we don’t have to. With the current Internet, we have lost the choice whether or not to view pornography.”

The above statement is absurd unless you use very loose definitions of "choice", "view" and "pornography". If you are choosing to visit web-sites that present you with pornographic images and you then choose to view them, then I am afraid you have chosen poorly, but the choice was always yours.

I also support the opt-out system because it will force all other websites to clean up their act. A friend of mine who is a school teacher recalled recently how her husband, also a school teacher, found himself having to explain to the private school board why there was a link to a pornography website embedded in every email he sent out to parents. Wishing to avoid a situation where work will impinge on his private life, he chose to use a free hotmail account to send the emails and it hadn’t even occurred to him that MSN would advertise pornography via user accounts.

No, it won't. If you think an American corporation is going to change its business practices because the Australian government is filtering my internet connection, you have a strange understanding of causality. A question for you: are you proposing that ISPs aggressively filter e-mail as well? If so, you may as well forget about using e-mail to discuss anything of a gynaecological nature with your friends and associates.

In another example, in November 2007 a website owned by Australia’s largest internet service provider, Telstra had to perform some ‘emergency maintenance’ on their WotNext website after a newspaper reported the site targeted to teenagers, was allowing uploads of soft porn to the unrestricted website. Telstra, which was given a Family Friendly ISP rating by the Internet Industry Association in Australia, had allowed unrestricted access to this smut for more than 9 months before it was reported in a Sydney newspaper.

This example only shows that Telstra needs to be prosecuted under existing legislation. It does nothing to support your argument that my internet connection should be subject to Government-mandated filtering.

My strongest objection to having an ’opt-in’ clean feed is that it sets a low standard for our society. Since when did pornography become a normal activity of daily living? I know millions of people watch porn, but a majority of the world’s population do not. So why should the minority who watch porn on a regular basis be able to force their personal tastes on the rest of us? Australia is a western democracy and by definition alone, you can argue that majority rules in a democracy and therefore, the clean feed should be ‘opt-out’.

The quality of your morality is determined by what you let your children watch. The quality of my morality is determined what I choose to watch. The argument that the implementation of a technical block on pornographic material instantly improves the populations' moral quality is utterly false. If anything, by treating responsible adults as children, it relieves adults of the responsibility to make their own considered ethical and moral decisions about how they conduct their own lives. As Peter Chen wrote in the Age:

"The underlying belief that computers can perfect our morality smacks of a strange mixture of technological ignorance and faith."

Australia is also market economy. If, as you claim, a majority of Australians want a clean internet feed, then surely by now someone would have floated an ISP that provided exactly that. As far as I am concerned, the fact that this has not happened thoroughly debunks your claim that there is huge demand for it.

Remember: you can have a "clean" internet feed right now - purchase a PC-based filter. If you have not done that already, one has to ask how much value you place on this. And if you think a blacklist-based ISP-level filter is going to be significantly more effective at providing you with a "clean" feed than a PC-based filter you are seriously misinformed about the capabilities of both technologies.

If you believe a PC-based filter is inadequate because there are members of your household that actively subvert it then, yes, you have demonstrated why you need a ISP-level filter. However, this does nothing to demonstrate why I must have one too.

The reality is we can no longer trust the internet industry to monitor and regulate itself. With the rise of raunch culture in our society and the advertising industry’s mantra of ‘sex sells’ governments around the world have to step in and regulate the internet. The internet industry may be up in arms about the clean feed solution proposed by the Australian government now, but they only have themselves to blame. For far too long the world wide web has operated in a culture of ‘anything goes on the internet’ and I applaud the Australian Labor Party for having the guts to tackle the issue head on.

Who is saying we should let the industry regulate itself? For your information, the Government already regulates the Internet industry. It has an authority called ACMA which does it. Are you aware that existing legislation already makes it illegal to view, store or distribute child pornography?

Since I came out in support of the clean feed proposed by the government, my website Australian Women Online has been inundated with comments from individuals who strongly oppose this attempt to clean up the internet. Most of this opposition is coming from within the blogosphere, a large group of people who are fundamentally opposed to any limits being placed on the internet. Most of these people are angry and a few have attacked me personally on the web just because I support ISP filtering of pornography. Many of those who have spoken out against the clean feed being introduced in Australia believe ISP filtering is about limiting freedom of speech. They are looking for a hidden agenda, but ISP filtering of pornography is about restricting access to pornography online and nothing more.

Whenever there is a choice between cock-up and conspiracy, choose cock-up. I personally think that this is an Alston-class cock-up by an immature Government which is profoundly ignorant of the capabilities of the technology it seeks to promote.

What these individuals fail to realise is that the decision will be decided offline by men and women who are not part of their cyber culture. As difficult as it is to fathom for those who spend hours each day on the web, the vast majority of the world’s population do not spend a significant part of their day online and horror of all horrors, there are millions of people on this planet who have never used the internet. If those who oppose the clean feed want to achieve anything in regards to this issue, they will have to turn off their computers, step outside and meet the ‘real world’. But they won’t, will they?

Personally, I don't think that "the millions of people on the planet who have never used the internet" much care about whether you censor my internet feed. Not surprisingly to most readers, I hope, this issue is primarily of concern to those people such as yourself and myself who do use the internet. Admittedly, your attempted slander is a little bit more delicate that Stephen Conroy's - you are only accusing us of being geeks, not paedophiles - but it is still slander. If this is really the strongest way to conclude your advocacy, I have to say, it's going to be a walk-over. On the streets. Outside.

Jon Seymour

PS: would this post be blocked under the Broadbanned Revolution? It does, after all, use the word cock-up three, no four, times.

A proposal that might just work...

Not wishing to be entirely negative and having considered the technical difficulties of the Minister's current proposal, I have drafted an alternative policy that might just work. I have e-mailed the Minister the details of the proposal. To save time, I also spent a moment to create a draft of the press release. The text of that press release follows here:

Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy announced Mark II of the Government's plan to rid the Internet of filth. The Minister said:

"After detailed consultation with the industry, the Government has refined its previous proposal to rid Australian homes of child pornography. The improved proposal will impose minimal administrative overheads on ISPs themselves and is guaranteed to have no performance impact. In fact, I have been advised by my department that this proposal may in fact speed the world of the Internet up - at no additional cost to the ISP subscriber or the tax payer

"Henceforth, each ISP will publish the IP address, URL and ACMA-rating of each site a subscriber visits - together with the subscribers name, e-mail address and phone number - in full public view on the web. This will be a mandatory policy. Subscribers may opt-out, but in this case the IP address and URL they actually visited will be substituted with an IP address and URL picked at random from the list of ACMA-restricted sites.

"The Government believes by making everyone's browsing patterns available for everyone to peruse, a sense of shame and community pressure can be used to do the rest. In fact, I confidently predict that within 2 weeks of the policy becoming operational, there will be no pornography, especially child pornography, available in Australian homes.

"In today's busy world, with both parents working, parents simply don't have the time to look over their childrens' shoulders as they browse the Internet. With the Governments proposal, they won't need to - Nanna and Grandpa can do it instead, even if they live in Coffs. If they are not available, the secretary of the local morals committee will always be able to find a spare moment in the evening to check that peddlers of filth are not weedling their way into your home. The ALP promised a broadband revolution and, as this policy shows, we intend to deliver one.

"I know that some people might object that publishing everyone's browsing habits on the web is a violation of privacy. To these people I say - if people equate a right to privacy with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree."

ps: since the Minister hasn't quite got that e-mail thingamajiggy working quite right yet, please assist by distributing far and wide...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

An alternative policy (v0.2): Filtered Network Providers (FNPs)

Since it appears that the only way this absurd public policy is going to be abandoned is to propose a better one, I guess I better write down (off the top of my head) a better one. I may edit this post over the next few days as I refine it. Any significant edits will be noted.

First, let's document what I understand the Minister's objectives to be:

  1. to assist parents in their struggle to block their children's access to web-based pornography
  2. to prevent adults with deviant sexual behaviour from accessing the most extreme forms of pornography and violence, including, but not limited to child pornography
  3. to do so without appearing to have totalitarian intentions
  4. to do so effectively.

I simply don't believe there is any value specifically blocking children's access to child pornography since there isn't a scintilla of evidence that Australian children desire, seek or encounter such stuff. However, if the Minister would like to prove me wrong on this, then he is welcome to point me in the direction of the studies that show it.

There is currently no evidence that the Minister cares about points 3 and 4 but perhaps this campaign will bring him round. He also appears to want to technically block responsible adults' access to child pornography. Why this is necessary is beyond me - after all, that's why we call them responsible, um, adults. Perhaps the Minister doesn't believe there are many responsible adults in the Australian electorate.

We need a policy that recognizes there are 3 classes of subscriber: parents with children who are concerned about the material their children might be confronted by, convicted sex offenders and all other adults.

The grotesque flaw with the Government's proposal is that it doesn't make a clear distinction between convicted sex offenders and all other adults. As far as the Government is concerned all other adults are potential sex offenders who should be treated as if they were convicted sex offenders.

Why they think this is good politics is beyond me. But that's for another post. The goal here is to recognize that there are 3 classes of subscriber and to propose a solution that recognizes this reality.

Let's consider the requirements of each group in turn.

parents with children
The primary concern of this type of subscriber is to minimize exposure to pornography of all kinds and to violence. To achieve this, the subscriber (if not all the users of the connection) is willing to be censored and is willing to trade some performance for "cleanliness"
convicted sex offenders
Having previously transgressed social and legal boundaries, society has asserted its right to restrict this class of subscriber's freedoms in various ways.
all other adults
This class of subscribers has committed no offence against the law and, in a democracy, is entitled to be treated with respect. In this class there are users who are opposed to censorship on principled grounds and those who are opposed to it only if it becomes personally oppressive. Inevitably, this group, as does any sufficiently large group, will contain sex offenders who have not yet been charged or convicted of a crime.

The Proposal

One or more commercial organizations set up one or more filtered networks. These organizations would be known as filtered network providers - FNPs. ISPs may also be FNPs or FNPs may be standalone entities that offer services to a number of ISPs

ISPs may offer subscribers who opt-in, tunnels into a filtered network of the subscribers choice. All IP traffic originating from the subscribers end-point is unconditionally and transparently tunnelled into the filtered network. This is the end of the ISPs responsibility, with respect to filtering.

The filtered network is firewalled off from the Internet in much the same way as a corporate network is. All inbound access is blocked. Outbound access it limited to a restricted set of protocols and may require proxy authentication. All access to and from the network is (or can be) logged.

Convicted sex offenders would be required to have their ISP connections tunneled into a special filtered network as directed by order of the judicial system. Supervisional authorities would be entitled to review any access logs to ensure that offenders were complying with their parole conditions.

ISPs will not be required to block access to ACMA restricted sites but will be required to log such access in a way that can be correlated with a subscriber if later required by warrant of a court. ISPs would be required to report a summary of such access to authorities on a regular basis and these reports might be used by investigating authorities to motivate an investigation.

Unfiltered subscribers who a court determines are guilty of ACMA violations may be subject to control orders which require that their ISP enforces unconditional tunneling to a filtered network

All other internet users would continue to have unobstructed access to the internet that they currently enjoy. As importantly, they will retain the dignity and respect of their Government that citizens of a democracy are entitled to expect.


ISPs responsibilities with respect to filtering are reduced to setting up tunnels to filtered networks for individual subscribers and logging and reporting on access to ACMA-restricted sites. ISPs may compete on the flexibility that subscribers have in choosing and configuring their FNP. FNPs would compete on performance, transparency of their filtering policies, effectiveness of their filtering, range of protocols offered and so on.

In the interests of transparency, the filtering policies of each FNP should be public and subject to review by a board of respected citizens.

Since the subscribers of FNPs are requesting control of their network connections the filtering can be much more aggressive than is appropriate for the general network. As such, while it won't be bullet proof, it can be far more effective than otherwise. FNPs can more effectively attempt to block covert channels and can lock down the protocols that pass the firewall to a restricted number (e.g. HTTP and HTTPS, but not SSL).

Performance of subscribers using a filtered network is necessarily reduced w.r.t. raw network performance but this is a trade-off that presumably parents are willing to make. Parents either want an effective and secure porn-filter or they don't. Parents would be free to choose the FNP that offers the best performance/effectiveness trade-off. They would also be free to choose an unfiltered network connection.

FNPs could offer parents summaries of the internet activity of their children so that parents could review it and counsel their children if required. Such summaries might flag attempts to use covert channels.

Unlike the Government's proposal, this proposal doesn't create an all-pervasive censorship platform that can be re-purposed at will, thereby reducing fears that the Government has totalitarian tendencies. However, it still presents some risks. If ISPs have, by normal operational means, the ability to transparently tunnel individual subscribers to filtered networks of their choice then it is possible that this capability could be abused unless there are suitable safeguards in place to prevent this abuse.

Government authorities will only be entitled to inspect records relating to individual subscribers of unfiltered networks under strict court supervision. The Government will only be allowed to censor the access of citizens found guilty of violating a law. All other citizens will remain unmolested by censorship.

The fact access to ACMA-restricted sites is not blocked is actually an advantage if the goal of Government policy is actually to detect, investigate and prosecute sex offenders. A pattern of continual access to ACMA-restricted sites is far more convincing evidence of guilt than a single attempt that is blocked. The existing policy drives all sex offenders to use untraceable covert channels that are more difficult to trace and investigate simply because that will be the only way to get access to their filth. At least this way, it will be easier to catch the less sophisticated consumer of ACMA-restricted material. Of course, the more effective it is in catching criminals the less effective it will become since self-preservation instincts will force remaining offenders to exclusively use covert channels which cannot easily be traced.

The ISP industry will have to comment on whether it is technically viable to transparently tunnel subscribers to a foreign network on an end-point by end-point basis. It would not surprise me if this was as expensive as the Government's proposal, however, at least the ISPs would be relieved of the filtering responsibility; there responsibility would end once they have setup the tunnel.

This policy, in order to be effective, would imply the use of content-analysis style filtering. This will require lots of server hardware to provide the CPU-grunt necessary (disclaimer: I work for a hardware manufacturer).

Due to the amount of hardware required, it's hard to see how FNPs would be financially viable. This is especially true since existing PC-based filters are already just as effective as FNPs, in absence of an undisciplined child who attempts to subvert them. This presumably makes the market for FNPs reasonably small. It is also unclear how much parents would be prepared to pay for rights to use an FNP or how deeply committed the Government would be in subsidising it.

Existing ISPs would still likely resist this proposal for very good reasons: the tunneling requirement would still be expensive for them to implement and they would cop damage to their reputations as service providers if their subscribers blamed them for performance or access issues caused by the downstream FNP. As such, it is likely that FNPs would have to own the customer relationship effectively becoming, in some sense, ISPs themselves.

Concluding Notes

Even though I drafted this policy, I continue to have deep reservations about it.

Although I believe it does not hold as much potential for totalitarian abuse as the Government's proposal, it is still a step in this direction. If this policy was ever subjected to formal development one could see that it might get perverted by changes made in the name of technical or financial viability and these changes might produce a bastard child that was as dangerous as the Government's present proposal. To paraphrase the Minister's comments about a different threat - constant vigilance is required to protect us from those dark and perverted forces who threaten our liberties.

Every adult who has been prevented from getting something done by the brain-dead policies of the corporate firewall administrator knows how frustrating that is. At least, with free access to uncensored residential internet connections, we know what freedom means. Proposals such as this deny this freedom to an entire generation of Australian children; these children will grow up expecting to be filtered, monitored, controlled and censored. Is this what we really want to teach them? Much better, I think, to teach them that freedom brings with it both dangers and responsibilities.

It is also massive overkill - the only problem it solves which isn't solved by existing PC-based filters is the problem that PC-based filters are relatively easily subverted by children. Do we really need a solution any more complicated than a little bit of old-fashioned parental discipline? If parents don't have the respect of their children, the battle is surely already lost.

Finally, I'll close with this quote from Peter Chen's recent article in the Age:

The underlying belief that computers can perfect or protect our morality smacks of a strange mixture of technological ignorance and faith.

Revision History

0.2 (04 Jan 2008)
Rewritten policy. Clearly identifies filtered network provider as a separate concept and delineates the responsibilities between ISP and FNPs. Makes explicit the role of courts in imposing controls on and permitting surveillance of subscribers. Added note about lack of pervasive censorship platform. Added note about financial viability. Added notes about technical viability. Expanded concluding notes. Added note about likely resistance from ISPs.
0.1 (03 Jan 2008)
Added the idea of signing a declaration of responsibility in lieu of requesting a filter.
0.0 (03 Jan 2008)
Initial revision of policy

Transcript of Conroy Interview 2007/12/31

The following is a partial transcript of this ABC audio file. This file contains an interview with the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy. The interviewer is John Barron of ABC NewsRadio. The interview was conducted on Monday, December 31, 2007. If you spot an error or omission in this transcript, please post a comment.

John Barron (00:00): Now this is something that's been talked about over the years - blacklist filtering at the ISP-level. Why do you think it will work?

Senator Stephen Conroy (00:07): At the moment we view this as an extra safeguard. Wer'e not suggesting for a moment that this is the only thing that the Government should be doing. We have already seen home-based filtering being championed by the previous government, we need education campaigns and we need increased policing. But, as the 16 year old who wasn't an expert computer hacker, demonstrated he could disable the home-based filters in 30 minutes. This is something that parents understand that there is parental responsibility necessary but the Rudd government was elected on a policy that we will be working with the industry to introduce mandatory ISP filtering, so that sites that involve child pornography and truly violent material can be blocked at an ISP-level.

Barron (01:08): How would that work? What would the technology be? Do you need to know the web address of all of these nasty sites and to keep updating the list as new ones emerge - otherwise they will get through?

Conroy (01:17): ACMA will have responsibility. They are the content regulator they will have responsibility for updating and maintaining this list. It will be coordinating with international agencies and other bodies that actually already have similar style lists and this information will be provided to the ISPs. But as I said the people who peddle this kind of filth are very smart individuals and they are always seeking to change their names and addresses so this is something we need constant vigilence on.

Barron (01:53): What do you say Minister to those that say that as soon as you give a government authority the power to tell internet service providers "you gotta block these websites", well that is one step towards the kind of internet you have in Saudi Arabia and China. Freedom of speech is dead.

Conroy (02:10): Well, we make no apology for wanting to block sites that contain child pornography and truly violent material that is out there. If looking at child pornography is defined a free speech then we are going to take issue with that. We are committed to working with the industry. We are going to fund a trial to see how this can work. We've said that we will find the best possible way to work with the industry to ensure that this disrupts the world of the internet is as minimal a way as possible. But people shouldn't confuse peddling child pornography with freedom of speech.

Barron (02:52): In past years Stephen Conroy the then Howard Government was accused of pandering to conservative Senator Brian Harradine. Is this you just doing the same to secure Steve Fieldings vote now.

Conroy (03:06): Well this is a policy we've been championing for the last two years. We went to the election campaigning on this policy. There are a whole variety of other areas in terms of cyber-safety that Kevin Rudd campaigned on during the election campaign and this is a policy we were elected to implement.

Barron (03:27): Is there a danger at the ISP-level and the PC-level that parents who ultimately would have to be greatest filter for what their children do and do not see on the Internet will just sort of - a bit like a pool fence - will think that's taken care of I don't have to worry about it.

Conroy (03:44): Well that's why we've got to ensure that we have educational programs for both parents and children. As I have said, this is not in anyway to replace parental supervision and parental education. We hope to promote and continue to promote these education aspects and we want to work with the industry on the best way to do that.

So, we are not for the moment suggesting that parents should step back and simply now say: "Right, that's fixed it", because this isn't the case. The people who peddle this sort of filth are very smart individuals. They spend their time trying to weedle away into people's homes and push this material onto people. So, we are very supportive of educational programs as well as this mandatory ISP filtering as a way to give an extra level of protection.

Barron (04:37): And do you think the industry will be receptive to this - the onus being put onto the ISPs?

Conroy (04:41): Well, I think that they will have some concerns and that is why we are committed to working with them, to work through the details of this. As I said there is a trial we will be conducting here in Australia. Overseas there are a number of countries that have got similar type systems: BT in the UK, a couple of Scandanavian countries and other countries in Europe that are actually working with this model. So we wil; be keen to be work with industry so that we can introduce this way in the least disruptive way to the world of the Internet.

Barron (05:17): Many thanks indeed for your time this morning.

Conroy (05:19): Thanks very much.

Barron: Communications Minister Stephen Conroy joining us on NewsRadio this morning.. Well let's find out how receptive industry is likely to be. Peter Coroneos from the Australian Internet Industry Association is with us. Peter, good morning....

Interview continues with Peter Coroneos. Transcript ommitted, refer to audio for more information.

E-mail to Senator Fielding

Senator Fielding, To be up front about it, I am committed atheist who, frankly, has very little sympathy for your religious beliefs but I would like to invite you to review a policy proposal that addresses serious flaws in Stephen Conroy's current proposal to impose mandatory filtering on all residential internet feeds. I believe my proposal would be far more effective than Senator Conroy's policy and is also likely to be more acceptable to a broader range of Australians. If you could give my proposal some consideration, I would appreciate it. link to policy Jon Seymour minor typos in original e-mail corrected here

An alternative policy: 3-classes of feeds (v0.1)

I've archived this version. For the current version, refer to An alternative policy (v0.2): Filtered Network Providers (FNPs)

A notice to the Minister

Please be advised that I intend to wage a fierce public campaign against your decision to introduce a mandatory filtering regime on Australian ISPs.

I intend to reveal the plans weakenesess including its logical flaws. While I don't believe you actually have any draconian intent at this point, I will demonstrate the ways in which this system could be abused by a future Howard-like government.

I will even try to offer some constructive suggestions about how your policy could be changed to make it better public policy. More importantly - more effective public policy.

Please be put on notice that if you ever accuse me in a public forum of being an advocate of free access to child pornography I will sue for libel. Even though I am not a lawyer, I believe I would have an excellent chance of winning.

Broadbanned Revolution - fight the powers that be*

Catchy name, huh?

cc: Tanya Libersek (local MP)

* missing from actual e-mail due to typo

A notice to my ISP

Please forward this to your communications director and to your accounts department. Consider this a notification that I want to apply for any opt-out policy that my ISP creates in response to the government's recent proposal to extend the coverage of the ACMA blacklists and the intention to impose mandatory filtering requirements on all ISPs. I wish to make it crystal clear that I have not, do not and will not consume child pornography nor do I harbour any secret desire to. To demonstrate my good faith in this matter, I will consider applying for any voluntary service that you offer that restricts access to material of this kind, provided the performance of my feed is not affected and that all editorial decisions are made by a board of well-respected Australians from a broad cross-section of the community and that all deliberations of the editorial board that result in blocking decisions are fully transparent and absent of covert or overt or Government influence. I would also ask that my ISP does what it can in the public sphere to resist these potentially draconian changes to Australia's internet access. If you are unable to respond positively to this e-mail within the two weeks, I will be seeking to transfer my business to another ISP who will. Yours Sincerely, Jon Seymour cc: Stephen Conroy (Minister), Tanya Plibersek (Local MP)

Welcome To The Broadbanned Revolution!

This blog has been inspired by exactly one reason - the attempt by Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to extend the ACMA rating system to include material currently only filtered by voluntary PC-based filtering systems and to impose a mandatory filtering requirement on all school and residential internet feeds. Under his plan, uncensored feeds would only be available for consumers who explicitly ask for them. More on this in subsequent posts.

For an audio of the interview that contains the Minister's brain explosion, refer to this ABC NewsRadio interview. For a copy of my initial response, and boy it won't be the last, refer here - published on the SMH letters on Jan 1, 2008. I will repost it here too.

Facebook users may wish to join the group Australian ISP filtering plan is stupid!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Wrong way, go back: Conroy takes poor approach to filtering porn

I am deeply concerned about the proposal of the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, to impose mandatory filtering responsibilities on internet service providers in an attempt to restrict children's access to pornography. I write as one with some technical literacy in these matters and no financial interest in the ISP industry.

In his announcement Senator Conroy stated that under the proposed laws all residential and school internet feeds would be clean by default and anyone wishing to have unrestricted access would have to negotiate an opt-out with their service provider. Presumably this will be achieved by ticking the box requesting a smutty feed.

Senator Conroy claimed that "if people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree". In doing so, Senator Conroy has attempted to smear any opponent of his plan as an advocate of free access to child pornography. This is deeply offensive and he should withdraw or clarify his statement immediately.

While I understand the Government's desire to support parents in their struggle to shield children from unsavoury web content, the proposed solution is a very poor way of going about it. Filtering at the ISP level will be utterly ineffective at preventing curious young minds from seeking access to pornography, and it will necessarily wind back some of the so-called speed advantages of the promised broadband revolution. What the Government gives with one hand it takes away with another. The unusual aspect of this decision is that both hands belong to the same minister.

Incidental users of the internet are highly unlikely to be confronted by extremely graphic pornography, especially child pornography, unless they actively go looking for it. But filtering at the ISP level will not stop determined consumers of pornography from obtaining it because of the numerous ways of subverting filters. It is not just a joke that it was once said "the internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it". It is a simple fact of the technology that cannot be avoided.

By advocating such a policy, an immature Government that promised a broadband revolution makes itself look foolish. It betrays a profound lack of understanding of the technology it seeks to promote.

SMH Letters/2008/01/01