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National Internet Censorship Plans Attract Criticism

Plans to introduce a national ISP-level Internet censorship and filtering system in Australia have attracted vocal criticism, with an almost unanimous slamming of the proposed plan by users and industry experts alike. With the Federal Communications Minister introducing a consultation blog to attract public comments on the proposed filtering (and other national level communications issues) it is likely that the comments will be swamped with open criticism.

Despite the level of criticism and public demonstration planned to highlight the problem, it seems that the Federal government is resolutely proceeding with the plan.

While the tested systems have all fallen short of effectively filtering the content they were meant to, and with serious network speed problems encountered whenever the filters were activated, there is still a broader test that is scheduled to take place on a closed network. Use of a closed network raises concerns that the results are going to be stage managed to a greater extent than they would be in a live test - where users will be able to experience first hand exactly how the systems are supposed to work (or not).

In the UK, a voluntary filtering system that is in use by almost all ISPs has demonstrated the risks associated with arbitrarily blocking sites. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) listed Wikipedia as a blocked site due to the appearance of an image from an album cover from the 1970s that they deemed to be child pornography. With the effect that all traffic from affected ISP customers to Wikipedia now appeared to source from the IWF, Wikipedia took steps to limit the risk of vandalism and so limited the ability of visitors from those IP addresses to modify Wikipedia. A matching announcement on Wikipedia describing what had taken place did more to raise awareness and complaints than the actual blocking did.

As with most attempts to block online content, there were multiple means available to access the blocked content, which was readily available on other sites (like Amazon), as well as different methods for accessing the blocked content on Wikipedia itself. The actual blocking appeared to many as a simple network error, but it wasn't long before the real reason for the strange errors to become apparent.

The minor inconvenience of not being able to easily view the Scorpions album cover has led to awareness that there is active filtering taking place in an environment where many users had previously not considered any filtering to be taking place. There are bound to be questions asked in the future about just how much other content is being surreptitiously filtered out for UK Internet users.

As some observers have pointed out, the censorship is very inconsistently applied. If the Scorpions album was identified as potentially being child pornography, then Nirvana's Nevermind, Blind Faith's Blind Faith, Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, and many other albums should also be actively blocked or otherwise restricted.

This gives the impression that, even years after the first series of internet filters appeared, that what makes it onto and off the filter lists is being driven by a minority of outraged special interests that aren't necessarily able to recognise that some of what they find annoying is seen as acceptable by the silent majority.

While the IWF has since reversed their decision to block the image, which in a case of the Streissand effect saw the image promoted far more following the blocking than it was beforehand, they have not acknowledged that their censorship approach may be fundamentally flawed (something that a growing number of users believe), only that it didn't work in this public instance.

The Great Firewall of China might have entered the vernacular of Information Security specialists, but the idea of a Great Firewall of Australia or the UK is not sitting comfortably with many, including many of the strongest supporters of the censorship plans.

12 December 2008

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