Australian internet censorship

One of the main communications policies being advocated by the Australian government at the moment is the introduction of nationwide internet filtering to block illegal and ‘inappropriate’ material and to ‘protect children’. The government proposes doing this using a blacklist of sites which internet service providers (ISPs) will be legally obliged to block. While protecting children from inappropriate material and preventing the dissemination of child pornography and terrorist material are certainly amiable objectives, a nationwide internet filter is the least effective and most unworkable approach, and one with an enormous potential for misuse.

From a technological perspective, a nationwide filter simply will not work for two reasons. First, there are literally billions of websites on the internet, with millions more popping up every day. Maintaining a blacklist of sites to block, when there are so many sites in existence and more coming into existence every day, is folly. Second, an internet filter will only block unencrypted websites (HTTP). It will not, and cannot, block other internet protocols such as encrypted sites (HTTPS), or point-to-point (P2P) protocols. Pedophiles do not use websites to distribute child pornography – they use encrypted channels. If they did use unencrypted websites, they all would have been caught by now.

In addition to being technologically ineffective, a nationwide filter may have the effect of slowing down internet traffic, as all traffic first must pass through the filter, which resides in software on the ISP’s servers. This is somewhat ironic, as the same government is complaining about how slow the internet is, and is intending to speed it up by introducing a national broadband network (NBN).

Technological issues aside, there are still strong reasons for concern about the introduction of a mandatory internet filter. There is incredible potential for abuse. At the end of the day, the blacklist will sit in the hands of a small group of bureaucrats. Should these select few have nefarious or partisan intentions, they could easily manipulate the internet filter to decide what opinions, news stories or political views we are able to access. This is exactly what has happened in the few countries where filters such as this exist (see China and Iran). The Federal Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has already indicated that should the policy pass through parliament, the contents of the blacklist will not be made public. This is a police state in the making – next stop thought police. On one hand the government wants to reserve the right to block any material they deem ‘offensive’, while on the other hand they refuse to disclose what is on their list of offensive material. The mere fact that the Government intends to keep this list secret, to me, is indicative of potentially very sinister intentions. Additionally, if the list is secret, parents will have no influence over what it is which their children should be protected against, which completely undermines the point of the exercise.

Finally one must question the need for a nationwide filter at all, when client side software is available which achieves the same outcome. Net Nanny-like software is commercially available, which parents can install on their home computers and use to block specific sites or keywords. This client side model gives parents much greater flexibility as to what their children can and cannot see than a blanket nationwide filter. So if the goal of the filter is to protect children, then a client side approach is more flexible, gives parents greater control, and doesn’t impose extra regulatory and financial burden on ISPs, while slowing down the internet for everyone else.

Conroy’s internet filter is a shamble. It is technologically unviable. It won’t protect children. It undermines the parent’s ability to make parental decisions for themselves. It will stop the circulation of neither child pornography nor terrorist material. It may infringe on freedom of speech. And, there is enormous potential for abuse of the system by politicians and bureaucrats.

This policy is cheap politicking. Conroy is leveraging off the fact that as soon as you say you are ‘protecting children’ or ‘preventing pedophilia’ you can win votes instantly by playing on the emotions of the public who are largely unaware of the details of the proposal.

I urge all Australians to contact their federal representatives with regards to this draconian policy.

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