Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why mandatory ISP filtering is a bad idea

Stuart, a commenter on "Somebody Think Of The Children" has made this very simple point:

"The only reason that secrecy is required is the fact that filters don't work, and even those backing them know it. If your filter does work, then there is little harm in publicly listing a URL and a reason for blocking it."

There is a certain seductive truth to this, but there is one flaw. The filters that the Australian Government impose are not universal. Even if the Australian filters were perfect, the list would have to be secret to prevent the list being exploited in jurisdictions not subject to Australian law and hence filters.

Stuarts point would probably be better phrased this way: since filters will never be 100% effective and universal, the list must be secret.

The issue then is whether a democracy can tolerate a permanent lack of transparency and accountability, implicit in existence of a secret list. Relying on secrecy is never a good thing, because secrecy is very hard to sustain or, if it is sustained, it invariably leads to a lack of accountability and an abuse of power.

Why are supporters so confident that the lack of accountability and transparency implicit in the existence of the ACMA blacklist won't eventually lead to corruption and abuses of power in this case?


Websinthe said...

A blacklist will be leaked.

Dan Buzzard said...


That's why they are blocking bittorrent.

Stuart Anderson said...

When I made the original comment, issue of (mis)use beyond Australia did cross my mind.

Regardless of any other factor, a filter is enforcement of a legal measure, which starts and ends at Australia's borders. The Government cannot legislate based on what might happen in some other country in which we have no jurisdiction. It is up to the other countries to police their own people.

If a legal ruling is made in regards to content, then that ruling must be made public. The classification board doesn't hand out banned content, but they certainly make their rulings and the reasons behind them public. That's basic accountability. The fact that CP is on the list doesn't give the Government a free pass, at the very least there needs to be independent oversight. The possibility for abuse of the filter by the Government (or any subsequent one) is simply too great to ignore*.

All of the reasons given for the need for secrecy, whether valid or not, are obviated by the fact that the list won't stay secret - this is a given. Ignoring reality doesn't make it go away, and I don't understand why the Government thinks it will.

* The sad fact is that mere days after stating on their blog that filtering has nothing to do with suppressing free speech, they promptly shut their blog down because they didn't like what people were saying in the comments. It's not a hypothetical case of the Government suppressing political dissent, it isn't theoretical - they've already done it. And we are supposed to trust them to handle a censorship system that is 100x more powerful, in private and with no oversight? I think that is a very bad idea.

Jon Seymour said...

A very helpful person has pointed out that the lack of a universal filter is the reason why the list child porn sites has to be secret. But this isn't an excuse for blocking R18+ or X18+ material, since that material is legal is almost all other jurisdictions and is otherwise freely available.

And here your original point stands - the only reason the other part of the list is secret is that the censorwalls really are ineffective.

Stuart Anderson said...

@Dan Buzzard

Blocking bittorrent, as a technical challenge, makes blocking web content look like a romp through a field of flowers.

It's like the Government is actively trying to make themselves look as clueless as possible. Do they even have the slightest idea what bittorrent is, let alone how it works? It's embarrassing to have these people representing us in government - they're idiots.

Dan Buzzard said...

"Do they even have the slightest idea what bittorrent is, let alone how it works?"

Do you really have to ask?

To me blocking bittorrent presents a big argument against the filter, the only reason for the government to block bittorrent would be to please a corporate overload. Most likely the film and music industry.

Personally I was hoping they would block atheist websites first, that would be the holy grail for free-speech advocates. However bittorrent is also a win.

The only people who know how bittorrent works are people who run the trackers and people who do the torrenting. People who want to mess with it always show themselves up to be clueless.

Stuart Anderson said...

A very helpful person has pointed out that the lack of a universal filter is the reason why the list child porn sites has to be secret.

The internet is specifically designed to route around damage - as such, it has no respect for borders. That isn't a problem with the internet, it's a problem with having borders.

Each country must police it's own people, and only it's own people - this is the core of the issue. From a legal perspective, there is no duty or obligation to another country beyond that which has been negotiated.

Put another way, saying that we cannot make information public in Australia because it might be misused elsewhere, is an utterly invalid excuse. We cannot reasonably be expected to throw away our right to free speech on suspicion of possible wrongdoing in some other part of the world.

Stuart Anderson said...

Do you really have to ask?

I guess I'm just naive. I look at how stage managed government is, and how calculating and ruthless politicians are, and I question how they can make such a rookie mistake.

It's not like they couldn't have done a bit of technical research first - they only would have had to call their own IT department to receive a concise explanation as to why this is impossible. Some market research wouldn't have gone astray either - don't they run their policies by a test audience first? That's basic marketing.

I understand that this whole thing is about shoring up support from the independent senators. What I don't understand is how the Government thinks offering the indies something they cannot possibly deliver, and getting egg all over their faces, is going to achieve what they want. Abusing minorities is the traditional method of buying the indies - and whilst trying new things is certainly something to be applauded, one must be willing to accept the possibility of failure. They just don't seem to want to get off the fail train until it gets to the end of the line.

Anonymous said...

The want to keep the list secret because they do not want to be criticised for any errors of omission or inclusion in relation to the list. There's no way they can justify banning the list.

Would an average person have an interest in visiting sites on the list? If the banned sites reflect community values, as they are purported to, then it follows that the majority of people will not want to visit the sites.

Would a fan of child pornography want to visit the sites? Presumably such a person is already visiting those sites or others that are similar, they should therefore know about the bannings as soon as they come into effect.

Now, I am wondering if they can legally prevent this list from being published? Surely it qualifies as being in the public interest. Even if they can intimidate Australians from publishing it, I am certain that it will be made available overseas.