Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Wanted, Reliable Proxies. Apply in Australia.

The government has given the go ahead for an internet filter. This has been an issue since the previous government but the measures were not so drastic. At present we are looking at the possibility of adults being prevented from looking at legal websites as they are advertently and inadvertently blocked, or a massive throttling of broadband speeds from either active or passive filtering. Something that goes against the Federal Government's attempt to provide Australians with faster internet. It also may see websites blocked by groups who wish to censor content for certain arguments, violating ideals that Australians believe in.

Electronic Frontiers Australia has a site on the feed.

The October Report: What may be censored

Part of it has to do with the content that is filtered.

The recent October report from the government about the filter states that Enex (which I believe is the company that did the test) used the ACMA (the Australian Communication and Media Authority) blacklist.

Wikileaks managed to obtain a copy of the blacklist, I'm using the most recent one that I could find, dated 18 March 2009.

Now some of the sites listed I can understand. They are sites that clearly violate laws in this country with content such as child porn. That's fair, and I think many people would agree with that.

But other websites are on there as well. Wikileaks itself is on the list, after ACMA added their page on Denmak's Internet Black List. As are three youtube links, a page from the Zombie Survival Wiki on tips and tricks, and three pages from Encyclopedia Dramatica (Offended, Kittens and something called "snapesnogger". I don't read ED, so I don't know) and a couple of pages from Wikipedia. There may be some legitimate, legal porn sites on there too, but I'm afraid to check because some of the URLs don't really make themselves clear.

The report continues to tell us on page 15:
Inappropriate for children test list
Content on the inappropriate for children test list included:
  • Gambling
  • Adult
  • Lingerie/Swimsuit
  • Drug-advocacy
  • Nudism
  • Gross-content
  • Profanity
  • Racism/Hate
  • Sex
  • Terrorism/Crime
This is the content inappropriate for children. Will homes without children be able to opt out of this? As far as I'm aware nobody will be able to opt out completely, but we would be able to opt out of this stuff.

I guess this will bring about a censorship of the news though. Many news sites have been using some of the things in that list to get more people to click on links.

Connection Throttling And the Filters: The ACMA Report

Will the filter (or filters) chosen throttle connections. This is also based on how well they block since this variable will weigh more heavily on the Government's choice of filter then speed. Looking at this report from ACMA gives us individual results in Appendix F and grouped results on other pages.

The report itself gives graphs showing that over between 2005 - 2008 the abilities of ISP filters has improved. Except in performance, where we see on page 5 that in the three years between tests that the range has increased dramatically.

Moving on to Appendix F, which is a breakdown of the filters. We can see that some of the filters were pretty good in a passive mode, but in an active mode filters like Alpha and Gamma would throttle a connection. Theta was a major exception, throttling when it was passively filtering.

We don't know how much any of these filters cost, but it would be terrible if either of these were the cheapest. (Personally I think that the Delta filter is the best to choose in terms of active filtering.) Knowing the Australian Government they are going to choose the cheapest because if there is one problem that Governments in Australia have it's that they think in the short term, not the long term.

If we find that Alpha or Gamma are chosen then the Government will have a lot of pressure when it comes to who is next on the list for the National Broadband Network (incidentally, Tasmania was first and they are already in stage 2. It also makes it completely pointless. Part of the idea was to make Australia more attractive to businesses. Being told that they might have to use internet with a filter that would throttle speeds by 80% is not attractive at all.

At present the issue would be moot in a place like Tasmania, which will have had the broadband upgrades completely finished by July next year, but would affect the other states that have not, which for some people would be "welcome to broadband, just as fast as dial-up."

Ramifications of Blacklists and Censorship

Websites will need to be identified before they are blocked. A complaint will need to be lodged with ACMA and they will do something and the website may be put on the list. (As I understand it's Phase 1. Collect Websites. Phase 2. ? Phase 3. Blacklist). It was found on the Wikileaks blacklist that a website of a dentist was on the blacklist.

As noted in the Sydney Morning Herald article just linked, being blacklisted gives the impression that your website hosts content that is very unsavoury. If the filter was in effect and a page appeared to notify you that the page you are viewing is blacklisted then what will you think?

Without proper oversight, which also includes ACMA actually checking the websites to make sure that they complaint is valid, the ACMA blacklist may end up being like the Hollywood Blacklist of 1950's America, you're on the list you're guilty, even if you aren't. Will there be methods available to stop the abuse of such a blacklist?

This raises issues regarding how extensive the blacklist will be. Will all pages of a website be blocked? Or will each individual sub-page be blocked depending on the content?

If it is the former then there are further ramifications that may actually infringe on the few constitutional rights that we have as well as other legal avenues that may arise through being thought of as guilty by association.

As there are a couple of Wikipedia pages on the ACMA blacklist, will that affect access to Wikipedia in general?

Do People Want A Filter?

In most cases it appears to be a no. According to the Sydney Morning Herald back in February 26 stated that a Galaxy poll conducted around that time found that only 5% of people (of 1100) wanted the ISP to filter, and 4% wanted the Government to do it.

In another poll of 10 000 Netspace customers 61% of people opposed such a move.

It isn't just opinion polls of random Australians that show this. The ABC reported back in July that the organisation Save the Children have stated that the filter won't protect children and it won't stop child porn from being leaked around the internet.

And today we see that The Greens have also opposed such a move, joining numerous other groups, like the EFA (linked to at the start of this post), GetUp!, the Australian Sex Party (who state the filter 95% of all porn sites which, in terms of the popular view of the internet is most of it.) and other groups who consider it to be a waste.

Groups that will support such a measure are primarily religious. And this is an important point to be made.

Potential Legislation and the Senate

According to Opposition Senator Nick Minchin (Liberal Party) legislation will be required for Australia to undertake such a task. I assume that has more to do with punishments for circumventing the filter and issues regarding defamation from being added to the blacklist for no good reason rather the censorship.

The reason I say that is because in terms of free speech Australia is a country where it is enshrined as an ideal, not a political reality. We have no right to free speech, the closest we have is that you aren't allowed to censor political communication.

This aside if legislation is required then the odds are that it will easily pass the Lower House based on numbers and the party line being enforced. The real fight will be in the Senate. The passing or defeat of this bill relies on a majority in the Senate, and it looks like Labor will need to woo many people into joining them.

In October of 2008 it was reported that Steve Fielding would support the filter if it would block all porn, and Nick Xenophon would try to use the bill to block foreign gambling sites (following his platform of "no pokies").

At present however only one of these two key members of the Senate support the filter. That member is Steve Fielding, the Family First Party.

For those that don't know, Family First are essentially the religious party in Australian Politics and they hold one of the two important positions in the Senate.

Nick Xenophon is the sole independent senator in the Senate, and a senator from my home state of South Australia. In a Q&A with ARN in November of this year, Xenophon has stated that he does not support the mandatory filtering of the internet.

Essentially at present the Senate would be hostile to filtering legislation. With the Coalition, the Greens and Xenophon voting no, and all along party lines, then the Senate would be hostile to any filtering legislation. It is quite possible that it will fail in the Senate.

I would question whether Tony Abbott, the Liberal leader and devout Christian, would pressure the Senate Liberals into voting for the bill, but I suspect that even he sees that it would cause him to lose leadership as it would probably fragment the party even more.

This issue will not go away however, but if the mandatory filtering does manage to pass through Parliament, or is implemented in another way, it will most likely become an election issue at the next election.

We may see either a change of government or a radical change in the political makeup of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.


What should be concluded from this? Well firstly it's that we do need proper protections of our rights. It is not good enough to see them as ideals that are culturally engrained, because it allows for abuses of power. This is part of the issue here. Will we see the abuse of power from minorities who don't want people to have access to certain information because they don't agree with it?

Will we see proper oversight of the ACMA blacklist, and if other, foreign, blacklists are used (like say the UK's Internet Watch Foundation blacklist) what chances of recourse will we have if they blacklist a site?

And do we need filtered internet? In terms of protecting children it seems that most Australians feel that it should be the job of parents and not the government. Groups like Save the Children prefer proper education rather then stopping everyone from visiting certain sites. If these groups see that filtering is not the right way to go then the claim that "it's to protect the children" is more likely to be a smokescreen.

Like issues regarding the media part of the onus is on the viewer. If you don't like what it is that you are watching/listening to/reading then you should stop. Change the channel or radio station, turn the page or close the tab. Don't try to force your morality on other people, which appears to be part of the reason for this filter in the first place. Just because you don't like websites that feature legal porn does not mean that you can tell me that I can't look at that legal porn.

At present this issue is not even at a stage where you could make a bill. There are too many holes, not enough oversight and quite possibly secret blacklists. The fight may be far from over, but it's not one we can afford to lose.

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