Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Loose thoughts by Bjorn Landfeldt

While most media were focusing their attention on the Copenhagen climate change conference in December, the government quietly announced it would this year mandate filtering of the Internet by Internet Service Providers. This would require ISPs to block all access to web pages on a list, compiled by the government.

The announcement came in mid-December, at a time of year when most people were too tired or busy to care. One group however realized changing the law to require filtering by ISPs is highly ineffective, makes us vulnerable to future misuse and ignores possible negative effects on another, more trumpeted, government initiative the National Broadband Network.

The Computer Research and Education Association (CORE) felt strongly enough about the redundancy of the government’s approach that it banded together in its opposition to the government’s proposed amendments to the Broadasting Services Act. At its annual meeting in Brisbane, CORE, representing all Computer Science lecturers and professors in Australia and New Zealand, decided to officially oppose the government’s proposed filtering. I was asked to take the lead and draft a press release on behalf of CORE.

Never before has our group reacted so rapidly and decisively. The urgency was motivated by a sense of shock that the government would actually consider such a move, based on the painfully redundant trials of last year. Our objections are purely technical; it is over to others to consider the societal and moral aspects of filtering.

First, a list-based filter – whereby the government provides ISPs with a list of sites containing banned web pages - will only capture a small fraction of the content the Government wants to block and none of the material circulating around nasty pedophile rings. Claiming that it will be reliable and effective method in capturing unwanted content and especially stopping child pornography is absolute nonsense. Second, content generation is changing and information is becoming increasingly ephemeral or “short lived”, especially considering the shift in information sharing through social networking media, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter etc. We don’t know exactly where we are heading, but we know the static web page will rapidly decrease in importance as the means to spread information and these web pages are the only items on a black list. Third, it is trivial to work around ISP filtering, in fact, much easier than it is to work around filters installed on individual PCs in homes. Since children are generally more computer savvy than adults, the question is whether the filtering scheme will effectively stop children or adults from accessing information. Perhaps in the near future, if wanting to find out what the Sex Party’s election platform is, one has to ask the kids. A simple poll among school kids and adults of who knows how to work around filters could make for interesting bedside reading, before pulling up the Internet blanket covers and going to sleep.

ISP filtering trials conducted prior to the government’s December announcement demonstrate the Government chose to only look into the past when carrying out the tests, not at all considering the National Broadband Network being rolled out. It is well known among the research community that list-based filtering can be done in existing systems without significant performance penalties. What remains unknown is how it will affect the NBN. Conversely, it is not known how the NBN will change the playing field for different kinds of media. There is a real risk it will require the filtering mechanisms to be significantly extended and developed to have any impact, which would put us on a very dangerous slippery slope. Making such changes and extensions would be much easier once the basic legislation is in place, setting the scene for further restrictions and censorship.

CORE has asked the Government for a working party to be put together to properly attend to the many issues surrounding the proposed legislation – a very sound suggestion. Australia is blessed with many smart people who are capable of properly investigating the matters surrounding this form of censorship and we can make informed decisions after the groundwork has been done. If we can implement filtering so that the effectiveness is maximized, and the risks and side effects minimised, it will be found out. Then, and only then, should nationwide filtering be implemented. If the case for filtering is convincing, I am sure Australians would embrace the scheme. An alternative is to stop talking and again make available the PC-based home filters the tax payers paid for during the previous administration, saving on the $125.8 million earmarked to improve cyber safety in the 2008 budget.