Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Filtering - again

I promise this is not my obsession, but I am getting increasingly frustrated by the nonsense that is the campaign against Internet filtering. I'm inspired to write by the leaking of the "ACMA blacklist" to Wikileaks.* It is interesting to note that according to the Minister this is NOT the ACMA list.

The difficulties I have with the campaign are many, but the main ones are that it is not a genuine libertarian cause, that it is mostly self-defeating and that it is based on the opponents own constructed straw-man. Let me deal with the first two, and then fill the void created by the absence of clear policy from the Government.

Not libertarian
The campaign against the filter is not a genuine libertarian campaign because, in fact, nowhere do they make the argument that the information that the Government ostensibly claims is to be filtered - images of child pornography and abuse - is information that should be frely available.

Earlier libertarian campaigns that did lead to radical changes in Australia's approach to censorship focussed entirely on the right of citizens to access he material subject of the campaign. The campaign about the censorship of The Little Red Schoolbook was a classic example of focussing on specific content. Similarly the work of Wendy Bacon and others expressly focussed on sexual politics, but this was based on some philosophical foundations. The ultimate was, of course, the simple absurdity of the book censorship rules that banned books like Portnoy's Complaint and Lady Chatterly's Lover. It was the revision of these rules that made Don Chipp a poster boy of "small l" liberalism.

A similar campaign now would be about the stringency of the rules that deems certain material "refused classification" and hence not legally able to be distributed or sold in Australia. But this is not the campaign - the campaign is that somehow the Internet is precious and different.

A slightly different variant of the libertarian strand of argument is that somehow the creation of the ability to filter Internet content merely by the device of a secret blacklist would empower the executive government with the ability to filter out other material, such as political material. The whacky case of the gruesome abortion images was supposedly demonstrating the possibility of this. Other comments, notably on the DE blog (now torn down I gather), went to the idea that this Parliament shouldn't provide the tools to another Parliament to implement.

This is all slightly crazy. Firstly you don't need this Parliament to make things possible for a future rogue Parliament, they can do it themselves. Secondly, the list is maintained by a statutory authority not subject to direction on including specific sites. Conspiracy theorists might abound, but you'd need to involve a lot of people in the conspiracy.

The campaign against the filter is not a genuine libertarian campaign.

A self-defeating campaign
Jonathan Zittrain, in his book The Future of the Internet; and how to stop it refers to the wonders of the Internet being the fact it is a generative technology. He writes;

Generativity is a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.

His thesis is that generativity is the Internet's greatest strength and its greatest weakness, it is this generativity that turns the Internet into a superb means for conducting scams, for phishing and, indeed, to subvert ordinary agreed social rules that are enacted as laws. This ongoing trend makes users sufficiently nervous about the net that they want it "controlled", and control ultimately means "locked down". There would be nothing simpler for controlling the net than going bck to the idea that all networks are Government owned and controlled just the way telephone networks were until the early 1980s.

The campaign about the filter only serves to drive home more to the non-technologists just how much this fear is justified. It does nothing to make the average user feel more comfortable to be told that a Government program to "protect the children" is ineffective because people can just work around it. That's like telling people that there is no point in a law prohibiting murder because people will still get killed. It doesn't instil confidence - it just inspires people to say "do more" - in the case of murder more is banning guns and increasing police forces. In the case of the internet, nationalising it is one safe way to go.

But more specifically the recent event has been the publishing of the ACMA "blacklist". Now this is the list prepared to notify filter providers of the sites that ACMA has identified that under Schedule 5 of the Broadcasting Services Act. It is notable that the list that has ben "leaked" in March 2009 is the one issued in August 2008 - speedy stuff.

It is also notable that this list has been in existence since the original amendment was passed in 1999. Why has the list been made public now - because it suits the purposes of those campaigning. There were lots of comments about how the list would become public, but it only has become public because of the campaign. How exactly does that endear the campaign to anybody? Especially since it also appears that the document is not the ACMA list.

Finally and most damagingly for the anti-filtering campaign, the publication of the list has less effect if the filter is in place! We will talk more about the ability to subvert the filter - but do I really care if the list of sites you can't get to is known?

I really do not know what campaign these people are pursuing, but it doesn't seem to be logical. Of course, they try to take comfort from the idea that the Government won't get its legislation through the Senate. Hello. Has anyone noticed that the existing law was introduced by the coalition when they were in Government. Do they really think that the coalition are the group that are going to vote for child porn?

A better strawman
In the absence of the Government doing it, let's write a possible policy.

The concept of classification of content is now well established in Australia. The most well understood regime is provided by the Classification Act that, as we know from the cinema ads, helps us make informed choices. The essential concept is that it helps a person to know before they (and importantly pay to) watch or buy something that it meets the standard they would expect. So the primary purpose is informing people about the content. A secondary purpose is to impose some mandatory restrictions, specifically on where and how R18+ and X18+ material may be displayed. In addition it allows for certain material to be "refused classification", this is material that cannot be distributed or sold, but it is not illegal to own. Included in this is a tighter level of material covered by other legislation - specifically the "illegal" material of child pornography, this is material that it is illegal to have in your possession.

This regime is all compounded by the fact that aspects of it are in State law, for example, whether X18+ material can be sold. Similarly the classification scheme itself was subject to an agreement between he States and Commonwealth, and the fact that there is no R18+ category for games is because of the inability to get this agreement, not unwillingness on the part of the Australian Government. (The absence of this classification evidently is a reason to object to the banning of online RC material - as opposed to being a reason to get the category created).

Let's also look at the limitations of the content classification scheme. Refusing something a classification and making it not available for distribution in Australia will not prohibit someone from accessing that material. It might be brought in undetected in luggage or even in the mail. However, the fact that it might still be accessed is never given as a reason for not having the classification and the prohibition.

This is not the only process. Recognising the more dynamic nature of television the TV networks operate their own classification scheme within the TV code of practice.

In the best of all possible worlds a similar classification scheme could operate for the entire web content on the Internet. For simple browsing all that would be required is that as part of the DNS scheme every domain had a classification. Just as TV that classification could be self-attested by the domain owner. Where the domain facilitates other contributions, e.g. blogspot that hosts this blog, whirlpool which is a forum, it is up to the domain owner how they police the need for all content to met the classification standard. The ability to execute a take-down notice of some kind would suffice. A variation on this is the approach taken by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA).

Unfortunately due to a range of factors, including the fact that different countries still have different standards, the full implementation of a satisfactory online classification scheme is some way off.

So absent a global solution, how can we replicate the outcome of a classification scheme (noting that if you want to make the libertarian argument against classification that should be a technology independent argument). The coalition tried to do it through the device of the existing BSA provisions. This defined certain content as prohibited. Prohibited content was to not be hosted in Australia, and through an industry code, the industry agreed to restrict access to the content that was hosted outside Australia. That latter restriction is by the provision of the list of prohibited content to filter providers and the promotion by ISPs of those filter providers to their customers.

This legislation unfortunately defined prohibited content as being R18+, X18+, and RC material. The procedure is that content is currently only listed if a complaint is made to ACMA and ACMA has investigated the site, classified the material in one of the categories and identified the site is hosted overseas. The ALP policy did include a plan to be more active on the list construction in conjunction with the filter. In addition ALP policy planned to require all ISPs to offer an optional "clean feed", that is of a filtered service more restrictive than the prohibited content.

What Conroy has never clearly stated is that it is his intention to modify the BSA so that there are two classes of content. The RC material that must be filtered out, and then the R18+ and X18+ that would be filtered out if a customer elected to acquire a clean feed.

The only objections to this (that are not objections to classification in general) are that it will "slow the internet", that it won't actually stop access to the bad stuff and that it is subject to abuse as the list is secret.

Slow the internet
Say the word "filter" and people immediately assume dynamic filtering or "deep packet inspection". In reality the simplest implementation of a filter of designated URLs (parts of sites) is to map those URLs to the IP addresses of the machines that host them. It is this list of IP addresses that is provided to ISPs and they route traffic to those IP addresses to the filter provider who undertakes the further analysis. This is cheap, scalable and efficient. It adds zero latency to IP addresses not on the list, and ideally can be implemented as part of the transit provision service out of the country and not need to occur in ISPs.

It won't stop access
This is the weakest argument, because it is equally true of all attempts to prohibit anything. As mentioned above you can find ways to get access to RC films or pictures. But is that a reason not to try? Is that sufficient reason to say they can be sold in any newsagent in the country? It is also the argument of the tech savvy who don't understand that the vast bulk of internet users never get past just typing URLs into browsers.

Secrecy of the list
The more effective the filter, the less necessary it is to keep the list secret. The list of films refused classification is public. It is no use in Australia because you can't buy them, though you could use it to try to source one through the means we know. Similarly the list of banned sites isn't much use to you if the filter is in place (except that you may equally use it to subvert). As a layer between secrecy and full disclosure the list could be made available for interrogation by application - so that civil libertarians and others could check to ensure the guidelines are being pursued.

Concluding remarks
The campaign against the filter is, quite frankly, stupid. It is only succeeding because Conroy hasn't been prepared to convert more of the campaign promise into policy documents. A good old fashioned "green paper" to accompany the trial would have been a good start.

Meanwhile others keep making gooses of themselves. The IIA is most concerned about the idea of legislation and would prefer to deliver whatever Conroy wants by way of a revision to the industry code. Conroy himself in answering a question at the recent ATUG conference is reported to have gone on at some length with the idea that the filter can't be undemocratic because it was the Parliament that will introduce it.

That hasn't stopped the Greens' Scott Ludlum engaging in a bit of posturing that he and other Senators will stop the legislation but they are still afraid the Government might try non-legislative routes.

It would be all much simpler if we divided the discussion into its two simple parts. What classification and content restriction schemes are appropriate for all content, and how can we mot readily put that into effect for content delivered over the Internet.

* I'm led to believe that providing a hyperlink on my site to the site that provides the list technically is a breach of the rules about publishing the list. If I am so notified I will remove the link.

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