[Edit 24 Oct 08: The current post on this issue can be found here:
“Wild claims hysteria enthusiastic commentary on internet censorship: Ludlam in Senate Estimates”]
Australia’s Labor government is now set on instituting mandatory across-the-board internet censorship for every internet connection, with no opt-out facility. If this eventuates, we will join such countries as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
When Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, first floated the idea of Australia-wide internet censorship, he reassured us over and over and over again that the censorship would be opt-out.
The story kept changing. One minute only homes and schools would have a “cleanfeed”; the next, all internet connections would be filtered unless they opted out. Now, we hear that all internet connections in Australia will be subject to filtering, with people able only to opt for a more or a less restrictive blacklist.
This week from the Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), a non-profit online civil rights organisation:
The filter, which will be mandatory for all Australians, was initially touted as a “cyber-safety” measure for homes with children. However, recent comments by experts have revealed the existence of a second, secret black list, that would apply even to homes that managed to opt out of the child-safe filtering scheme.
“The news for Australian Internet users just keeps getting worse,” said EFA Board member Colin Jacobs. “We have legitimate concerns with the creeping scope of this unprecedented interference in our communications infrastructure. It’s starting to look like nothing less than a comprehensive program of real-time Internet censorship.”
The scheme seems at odds with the Government’s campaign promise to improve the speed and availability of Australian Broadband. The Government’s own research has showed that filtering lowers speeds by 30% or more even under ideal testing conditions. The same data raises serious questions about the accuracy of filters, with even the best performers over-blocking hundreds of thousands of innocuous web sites.
There is still no information on what the government will consider “inappropriate” material. Censorware has in the past blocked people from accessing sites on botany, feminism, youth suicide prevention, rape and child molestation survivor support, family planning, prison rape activism, AIDS information, disability rights, gay rights, religion (including a Jewish youth site and the Vatican), political dissent, euthanasia, drug harm minimisation, human rights, major mainstream media sites such as TIME magazine, politics (including the British Conservative Party site).
If the censorship is based on a manually maintained blacklist, as seems likely, it will be a hopeless non-starter in terms of effectiveness. Sites move daily, there are millions of them, and the false positive and false negative rates will be so high as to make the entire exercise a hopeless joke – an expensive hopeless joke that will slow internet speeds for all Australians, and prevent non-technically-knowledgeable grown-ups from accessing to valid information.
The government’s own tests in a carefully controlled and tiny pilot environment showed the tested filters to be ineffective, to have serious impacts on network performance, to have major problems with overblocking, or all three. The best possible filter, as tested in this controlled laboratory environment, would be likely to block at least 10 000 legitimate websites within Australia alone. Most of the filters slowed internet speeds by 22-87%. The government tried to spin this trial as having positive and encouraging results, something the mainstream media lapped up uncritically.
Something the government is trying desperately to ignore is that there is simply no way to block all illegal material, let alone all “inappropriate” material. Even if they do block all of Youtube, Facebook, and Myspace, their web filters cannot block Usenet, instant messaging, IRC, peer-to-peer, or any of the other multitudes of protocols and methods that people use to access digital information. In addition, web filters are useless in the face of anyone with a modicum of easily-gained knowledge; they are trivially circumventable using proxy servers and software such as tor.
I have written to a number of non-major-party Senators to ask for their take on mandatory across-the-board censorship. Bob Brown’s office has responded to say that they’re against it. I will update when there is more information available.
Further information on what action you can take is available at the No Clean Feed site:
By letting policymakers know just what we think of the “clean feed” Internet filter, we can bring about a policy change. You can help by contacting your representatives and spreading the word about this campaign. Here are some quick actions you can take to make a difference.
References and Further Reading:
Hoyden About Town: The Great Firewall of Australia., 31 Dec 2007
Hoyden About Town: “Civil liberties advocates = paedophiles”: Internet culture wars from the ALP. 1 Jan 2008
Hoyden About Town: You – You – You – Non-cookie-cutter feminist, you! 3 Jan 2008
Hoyden About Town: Censoring the Internet: Conroy plays King Canute. 4 Jan 2008
EFA analysis of the proposal, 4 Mar 2008
ACMA pilot test results: Closed Environment Testing of ISP-level Internet Content Filtering, June 2008
Minister’s Media Release, 28 July 2008
Hoyden About Town: No surprises: internet filtering test results show products block legitimate content. 31 July 2008
Computerworld: No opt-out of filtered Internet. 13 Oct 2008
Ars Technica: ‘Net filters “required” for all Australians, no opt-out. 16 Oct 2008
Gizmodo: Australia To Build Great Firewall Down Under. 16 Oct 2008
Crikey: And the Wankley Award goes to … Conroy’s net filtering scheme. 17 Oct 2008