18 December 2009

RE: Official Google Australia Blog: Our views on Mandatory ISP Filtering

Google Australia has released a note about its view on the Australian Labor Party introducing mandatory ISP filtering of internet content in Australia. Google shares my view that the Australian Government should not be introducing a country-wide form of censorship in Australia in this manner.

I censor things all the time. I censor my personal use of the internet, my television watching and what I see and read. I censor my daughter's use of the internet, and I set controls and standards on what she can and cannot do.

However, this is not what Stephen Conroy is talking about. He is talking about "protecting" people from a specified list of content, at least some of which is probably illegal in Australia anyway.

The goverment conducted "testing" using various tiny ISPs, but also apparently included Optus (my ISP). I'm interested that Optus didn't notify me that they were filtering their services.

The testing regime was pretty hilarious. One test was to block the sites listed in the ACMA blacklist. Wow, that must have been really hard... I can actually do that myself with my $100 router at home. However, router-based blocking is relatively crude, and other systems such as pass-by filters or proxies are more sophisticated.  Most enterprises do it today with systems such as Webmarshall, Websense, Surfcontrol, M86, Sonicwall and even open source products.

The type of information filtered was the sort that you would have to try very hard to access. When a version of the blacklist was leaked in 2009 it was clear that the sites listed were "way out there" and no ordinary user would ever go near them. So what exactly is Stupid Senator Conroy trying to do except grandstand on a point that sounds great but has no substance at all? Nothing.

The best filtering is the filtering we do as adults exercising judgement, and as adults supervising our children. If an adult wants to exercise poor judgement then he will bypass these filters easily.
Telstra did not test circumvention, because it considers that filtering can be circumvented by a technically competent user. report

What we are left with something quite dangerous - a system that achieves absolutely nothing, but provides a framework for something very sinister - a filter system that by its nature will be secret. The ALP won't tell you what's on the filter list on the basis that that would be giving away a list of sites that undesirables would use.

So what was tested? Two things: a blacklist, which is a list of sites to block. This is technically easy, and most problems in the test arose from the format of the site list provided to the ISPs. The second was a category based filter, similar to that used by most enterprise filtering systems. I've used a few of them, and some are hilariously bad, but some are reasonable. However, filtering my access at work for legitimate occupational health & safety reasons, or anti-harrassment reasons, is a very different activity to filtering my access as a citizen. Some of these filtering products are absolutely hopeless, but you'll be stuck with whatever your ISP has to chose.

Enex Pty Limited said in their report:

A small number of customers indicated they experienced some over-blocking and/or under-blocking of content during the pilot. These events were considered relatively minor and occurred only once or twice. A small number of customers also reported slow network speeds as a result of the service which filtered additional categories of content.
So, if this system goes live, can you actually image contacting, say, Optus or BigPond, reporting that you've been falsely blocked, and them actually fixing it (either within 24 hours or at all?). That is hysterical.
Customers expressed the view that it was important for there to be mechanisms for self-management of the filter settings and improved visibility of the filter in action.
What are the chances of Stupid Senator Conroy taking this piece of the report and putting it into action? No he won't, because that would actually be hard work. No, he just wants to look good to the largely uninformed sector of the public who doesn't understand that this filter is a fraud.

Official Google Australia Blog: Our views on Mandatory ISP Filtering