Thursday, February 26, 2009

For Bernadette, it will always be ground hog day

For Bernadette McMenanmin, it will always be ground hog day - perhaps tomorrow, despite all evidence to the contrary, will be the day that delivers the perfect ISP-level 'filter' which blocks only that which is 'right' to block and nothing more.

When she is not accusing opponents of mandatory ISP-level censorship of advocating child pornography, she likes to question why technologists have failed to use their imagination to derive effective technical solutions to the problems of child pornography.

Bernadette, it is not for lack of imagination. We know exactly what an effective technical solution would look like. It is precisely this imagination which forces us to raise our voices in protest and warn those less technically literate than ourselves that we really do not want go there.

The measures would not be cheap, nor would they perform well and they would be horribly inaccurate. They would not even be 100% effective at denying access to illegal material, but they would be far, far more effective than what is currently proposed. And surely, if we are to think of the children, effectiveness should be our only concern.

A technical and legislative solution that is effective would have these characteristics:  use of a whitelist to deny access to all sites not positively certified as acceptable; the outlawing and blocking of unregistered protocols particularly those that can be used to implement tunnels; the outlawing and blocking of all unlicensed uses of encryption; the outlawing and blocking of all use of VPNs and anonymous proxies; the outlawing of the acquisition and use of server equipment located outside Australia; the outlawing and blocking of all P2P protocols; the outlawing of the use or possession of all pornography that depicts persons below the age of 30.

Not one of these technical or legislative measures would be acceptable in a democratic 20th century economy, let alone one that has pretensions to be a "digital" economy - one with a National Broadband Network, or not.

Yet all of these measures would be necessary to effectively deal with the problem of adults that seek child pornography. If just one of these measures is not adopted, the resulting filter would be vulnerable to subversion by those sufficiently motivated to subvert it.

If the current 'filter' is implemented, it will be utterly ineffective: vulnerable children will still be abused by adults; the flow of the associated child pornography will continue unabated; those that 'think of the children' to the exclusion of every other rational consideration will demand yet more obtrusive and draconian controls on Internet usage.

We know the current proposal will fail to achieve the desired objectives; we know that child protection advocates of the kind represented by McMenanim will not cease in their calls for ever greater Government meddling; we know this will be but the first round of futile but increasingly invasive attempts to replace civic morality with technical fixes.

As technologists we are pleading - stop this insanity.

Any attempt to eviscerate the citizenry's moral conscience by replacing it with a set of technical censorwall rules is deeply flawed on a technical level, but also on an ethical one. Citizens should accept responsibility for avoiding illegal material and should be accountable for any transgressions - they should not be freed of this moral responsibility by a paternalistic Government and its supporters.