Sunday, December 21, 2008

With Netsweeper installed, the thought police will be unnecessary

Since October 2008 is has been clear that the Government intends to implement a 2-tier filtering regime. The first, mandatory tier, would involve URL blacklist filtering according to a blacklist specified by ACMA. The second, optional (as in opt-out) tier, would be used to filter additional material not on the ACMA blacklist that the Government thinks that Australians should be protected from.

By definition, the second tier of filtering will not use a blacklist, or at least, not an ACMA blacklist. The Government has not talked about a second ACMA blacklist. Instead, the sort of filtering performed by the 2nd tier would be more like the filtering already done in schools, corporations, and by dedicated ISPs that already offer clean feed services. It is not clear what parameters bound the operation of this second tier and how much control individuals will be given over the filtering decisions made by the second tier.

Let's suppose that an ISP grants the user some control over what is blocked on their feed. webshield already does this, for their customers. Products like Netsweeper also have a category list and any ISP that used Netsweeper could potentially offer a configurable filter to their customers.

How would configuration work? Presumably, the adults in the household could select which categories get blocked by the filter. Here's a document that lists the categories that Netsweeper uses. And here is a definition of category 23 pornography.

This category contains URLs that reference, discuss, or show pornography, pictures, videos, or sexually oriented material. This category includes nudity, soft and hard-core pornography, sadomasochism, bestiality, child porn, fetishes, stories, adult magazines, toys, or any sexual related purchase. This category excludes sex education sites.

Which is fine. What is unclear is why Netsweeper classified (on December 21) "The Porn Report Book" as class 23, pornography?

This is a site which is about a book which is about pornography. It is not a site that contains pornography itself.

Worse, here is a page which offers a review of "The Porn Report". On December 21, Netsweeper classified this page as:

Journals and Blogs [1]
Arts & Culture [2]
General News [12]
Pornography [23]

In other words, Netsweeper has decided that a site advertising "The Porn Report" and a site offering (an unflattering) review of "The Porn Report" are themselves pornographic.

What are the implications of this?

Anyone subject to a Netsweeper filter who was interested in educating themselves about the role of pornography in Australian society would be denied access to the site that promotes the book if they have the "pornography" classification switched on - which they surely would, otherwise, why are we having this debate?.

Not only that, anyone in this unfortunate condition who wanted to read reviews of the book, would have their access to some reviews of the book blocked by the same filter.

Promotional websites and book reviews are critical elements that help to sell books. It is an obvious consequence of this inadvertent censorship, that publishers of the Porn Report will lose revenue due to lost sales from a large portion of the Australian population. Furthermore, the voting public won't be as educated about the issue of pornography as they otherwise could be.

What are the publishers of "The Porn Report" meant to do?

Do they prostrate themselves on bended knee before Netsweeper and the other vendors and ask them to remove the "Pornography" classification from the site? Possibly, but why should it be their responsibility to do that? And even if the filter vendors deign to reclassify the site, that doesn't solve the problem. The publishers simply won't know where all the reviews of the book are and whether they have been blocked. Whose responsiblity is it to locate every last blocked review and get the classifcation fixed? Is it the publisher? Why?

This is why filtering for pornography is so unlike any existing censorship mechanism. It doesn't scale to the volume of material and doesn't deal with the contingent and transient nature of publishing on the Internet

So here we have a very real example of how the opt-out filtering policy will place a very real restraint on the trade of people who have conducted serious studies about the role of pornography in Australian society. Furthermore, such a filter will directly interfere with the quality of social and political discourse within this country.

This is quite simply unacceptable for a democracy. The Government should not be setting up a censorship mechanism that censors by default and is fixed by exception.

What a joke.

Readers are invited to discover for themselves what other sites Netsweeper regards as pornography using this test site.

Classifications reported by Netsweeper were accurate as at 21 December, 2008. Subsequent results may vary, presumably in response to the level of community outrage.


Anonymous said...

To note even more, it classifies a website which is known for "Amateur Porn/Webcams" as General.

Fairly Obvious it's useless.

URL Category General [45]

Stuart Anderson said...

Let's not beat around the bush - no matter how good a filter is, there will always be mistakes made.

If a filter was 95% effective, that still a 5 out of 100 pages false positive/negative rate - I would consider that to be totally and utterly unacceptable, even if that was the only problem with the plan. The current figures being bandied about make the prospect of 95% accuracy about as likely as Paris Hilton becoming a Rhodes scholar.

Filter failures aren't just blocking things out that shouldn't be, it's also allowing through content that should be - so the idea of safe browsing is baloney.

I don't know how anyone could possibly claim that a filter can work with any degree of accuracy - it can't, not until the day computers learn to see and read, understand the context of what they are looking at, and then make a judgement based on a moral framework. I don't see that happening any time soon.