Internet Censorship: Part One
The Australian Government is proposing mandatory ISP (Internet Service Provider) Level filtering of the Internet. Championed by the Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy, the Government is already going ahead with a live pilot commencing on the 24th of December 2008 despite significant opposition (The Age, 2008.). The filters that have been researched by directive of the Government (ACMA 2008, p54-55) to the Australian Communications and Media Association (ACMA 2008, p1) and include both blacklisted illegal websites and other content filtering which affects legal websites whose topics are to be listed as inappropriate (ACMA 2008, p58.). The list was tested by the ACMA and included topics such as human sexuality, abortion, terrorism and violence among many others (ACMA 2008, p49). These soon to be banned sites may be used for informative educational purposes, or for discussions on whether currently illegal activities should be adopted into our culture. Without approaching the morality or ethics of adopting any particular concept into our cultural acceptance, the right to speak for or against them needs to be safeguarded and the internet is the last bastion of free speech available to the population.
Furthermore the Australian Clean Feed concept is going to enforce child-like restrictions onto households which do not contain childrenThe report prepared by the ACMA only researched performance, effectiveness, scope, and adaptability (ACMA 2008, p8-9) of some current ISP-Level (Internet Service Provider) Filtering technologies. The ACMA was not directed at ascertaining the initial or continuing costs to upgrade and maintain the networks for ISP’s (ACMA 2008, p2), it also does not guarantee that the products tested were suitable to be scaled up and implemented by the different ISP networks and manner with which they are organised (ACMA 2008, p47, & EFA 2008.). The findings also did not address concerns such as circumventing the filtering (ACMA 2008, p2), which I will address later as a major cause for concern which questions the appropriateness of spending such vast sums of money on an initiative that is proven to not be effective (EFA 2008.). Furthermore the Australian Clean Feed concept is going to enforce child-like restrictions onto households which do not contain children. All this without being able to opt out of the system despite the products that were looked at being able to provide this measure of tailoring in filtering based on accounts (ACMA 2008, p46).
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised Australia a better broadband system, but what is being presented here can only degrade performance (ACMA 2008, p40-41) and still blocks popular websites which are used for legitimate means (ACMA 2008, p45). This filtering can also be used to monitor user’s activities on the internet and as Senator Ludlam said in parliament; it constitutes the equivalent of the Post Office reading every mail before they send it on (YouTube, 2008). This is highly inappropriate without reasonable concern and a court order to validate them as it invades our privacy. Not to forget the danger that such a system is open to abuse or that the data recorded may be illegally accessed. While Minister Conroy claims the system being proposed is similar to what is in use in some European countries, this is not true. Systems such as British Telecom’s Clean Feed in the UK which he refers to will only filter a much shorter list of confirmed illegal websites (EFA 2008.); a list such as the ACMA already provides (ACMA 2008, p19). No automated guessing at ‘illegal or legal but inappropriate’ websites which the Australian Clean Feed is planning on is undertaken (ACMA 2008, p19).
Why it won’t work
Internet Filtering will ultimately fail in its goals and even where successful may still be circumvented to gather access to restricted content, or be used as a search engine to locate such material. An Australian Clean Feed will also demand constant funding to be maintained above the initial capital required to launch such an endeavour. The methods that may be employed are both prone to over-blocking and are subjected to a number of variables which erode their usefulness.
a staggering amount of websites could be over-blockedResearch has shown that 87.3% of internet websites share a common Internet Protocol (IP) Address with another website, and as many as 69.8% share their IP address with fifty or more other websites (Clayton 2005, p2). This shows that a staggering amount of websites could be over-blocked if the IP blocking scenario was selected even for just a short blacklist of hazardous websites. The alternative then would be to block their Doman Name System (DNS) address.
While more accurate at restricting content than an IP address block the DNS block has its own short comings. The block is only as effective as the time it takes for the website owner to relocate (ACMA 2008, p50), and banning access to a website may only be done if the same content is directed to an ISP’s filter as it is to their customers to validate its inclusion on a blacklist (Clayton 2005, p5). Customers may then still circumvent the bans by directly entering a website’s IP (Clayton 2005) or utilising readily available Proxy Servers to access banned websites (Clayton 2005, p6), thus evading the filtration system’s security measures; prompting further expense to continually update blacklists and change proxies outside of the filter service to permit it to search for banned content providers more accurately.
When the New Zealand Government tested British Telecom’s Clean Feed system in 2006 they discovered that as little as 10-15% of the child pornography it was targeted to safeguard against was actually blocked (EFA 2008.). Given the internet is over 30 billion web-pages this leaves a massive void of protection against illegal, let alone inappropriate content, still available to be found by users and which is every growing and insurmountable for any volume of employees to scour and classify (EFA, 2008.).
The majority of the filters tested by the ACMA to filter the internet show no ability at monitoring non-web based protocols (ACMA 2008, p1 & p51) such as email, messaging services, or peer to peer file transfers; which make up a significant component to overall internet traffic (ACMA 2008, p51). Of the couple which did, they were very limited in scope and use such as blocking all email or file sharing (ACMA 2008, p53); which prove impractical for national use.
such a filtering system could be used by internet savvy offenders to harvest a list of banned websitesWhat is worse is that just such a filtering system could be used by internet savvy offenders to harvest a list of banned websites which they may then access through the methods outlined above (Clayton 2005, p10 & p15). Oracle attacks as they are known have already been successfully performed against British Telecom’s Clean Feed filter system (Clayton 2005, p13-p14). The attack measured the ISP-Server responses while terminating the packets prematurely to prevent them from actually accessing the website to determine where the filter was detecting inappropriate material and cycling through addresses then adding any site not accessed quickly to the list of banned sites the offender may then access (Clayton 2005, p9-12). This ironically turns the filter system into a phonebook for illegal websites. Despite adjustments made to a similar system, Clayton still believes they are susceptible to more such occurrences (Clayton 2005, p13-p15).
ACMA - Australian Communications and Media Authority (June, 2008.). Closed Environment Testing of ISP-Level Internet Content Filters. Available Online: http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets...ial-report.pdf (Accessed November 13th, 2008.)
Clayton, Richard., (June 2005). Failures in a Hybrid Content Blocking System. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom. Available [Online]: http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rnc1/cleanfeed.pdf (Accessed November 14th, 2008.)
EFA - Electronic Frontiers Australia, (Mar 2008.). Labor’s Mandatory ISP Internet Blocking Plan. Available [Online] at: Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) Labor’s Mandatory ISP Internet Blocking Plan (Accesssed November 14th, 2008.)
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary (Nov 2008.). Fascism. Available [Online] at: fascist - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (accessed Nov 22nd, 2008.)
Moses, Asher (Nov 2008.). Net Censorship plan Backlash. Available [Online] at: Net censorship plan backlash - BizTech - Technology - theage.com.au (accessed Nov 13th, 2008.)
YouTube (Nov 2008.). Senator Ludlam questions Minister Conroy. Available [Online] at: YouTube - Senator Ludlam questions Minister Conroy (accessed Nov 21st, 2008.)
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