Goodbye Freedom and Democracy

For a while Australia, New Zealand and other western countries have played with the idea of filtering the internet and have run trials to determine the feasibility of such a setup.

As of today, the Australian government has announced that they plan to start filtering the internet and the New Zealand government is making moves towards deploying a similar type of filtering system.

But why are they pushing for this and why is there so much opposition?

The reasons that the government wants to filter the internet ranges from the desire to block material undesirable in society, such as child porn or bestiality but also the much more murky goal of “protecting the children” from stumbling across inappropriate content.

I totally agree that it would be good to be able to block/destroy the market for this type of material, the abuse of children and animals is a sickening thing, however a filter is not going to solve this and worsens society by destroying the very freedoms we hold dear.

The whole concept of having the government filter the internet is against our supposed ideals of a free society, where the government exists only to protect and serve it’s citizens. By filtering the internet, the government is saying that it doesn’t trust it’s citizens and doesn’t consider them capable of making their own decisions as individuals.

There’s a strong risk that once the filters are in place that they will be abused, by extending to block other undesirable content…. such as contempt of court information, rival political parties, websites promoting or discussing illegal activities such as euthanasia or marijuana law reform. Or perhaps even blocking legal R18 content, if a conservative religious political party take power?

There’s also the possibilities that organisations like RIAA or MPAA and treaties like ACTA will lobby the government to add filter rules to block DRM-breaking software such as libdvdcss (used for decoding DVDs on Linux platforms) or patent infringing software.

On a democratic level, there is risk of abuse by a malicious government, such as the Iranians, Chinese or Fijian governments – filters have been used by the Iranians during the riots to block access to information and communication networks such as Twitter to try and suppress protesters and restrict the flow of information.

China has been manipulating it’s population for years with it’s filters and using them to find people breaking their laws to try and promote democracy so their police can “sort them out”.

There is even the risk of a malicious civil servant seeking to manipulate companies by blocking websites to rivals and causing massive customer loss, and the blocked company having to try and get the site unblocked. With the right bribe in the right place, there could be a “technical glitch” blocking a competitor for a week…

And if a site is incorrectly blocked, there is nothing that can be done other than submitting an anonymous request to unblock it, which will *hopefully* be followed upon in a timely fashion, but there’s no guarantee or formal process to follow though to hold the government accountable.

The other major problem is that the filters being deployed are secret – as a citizen, I cannot lookup and find what sites have been blocked, I simply have to assume that the government has my best interests at heart and trust that blindly. The public has no idea what sites are being blocked unless they stumble across a blocked site.

This gets even more scary when the possibility of search engine filtering being applied, so blocked sites no longer appear in search results effectively hiding information entirely.

It could also potentially be extended in future to find and prosecute people – if you attempt to access a blocked site, your IP address would be logged and the government would be able to prosecute you for attempting to access or distribute illegal content.

Filters will prevent almost nothing, yet have massive impact on our freedom and give a powerful tool that can be easily abused to those who seek power over others.

Aside from all the moral reasons why filtering is such a catastrophic idea, there’s also the fact that it’s technically trivial to bypass by anyone with the slightest clue of how the internet works.

All the filter proposals available are based around filtering HTTP websites – however the vast majority of this sort of illegal content is distributed over encrypted or non-HTTP systems such as torrents or SSL encrypted websites, which the filters are incapable of affecting.

Anyone wishing to share or access such illegal and banned materials will be able to continue doing so without any impact by the filter. The introduction of filtering will not decrease child porn in the slightest.

As a New Zealand citizen, I’m closely watching the events occurring over here. At this stage, the Department of Internal Affairs is currently involved in setting up an opt-in trial of internet filtering and is planning to try and get major ISPs onboard with this, although it is not seeking to make it a legal requirement (yet).

Some ISPs already do their own filtering, Telstraclear and Vodafone are known to filter content for all their customers, with no means of opt-out other than shifting to a different ISP.

I’ll blog about major developments, but the best source for information ATM is the techliberty blog which posts about information freedom in NZ.

The Creative Freedom Foundation is also worth following, they post a lot of information on issues as as the Section 92a “three strikes disconnect” policy and the ACTA treaty.

I consider filtering to be a completely pointless and stupid idea, however if some people wish to use it, I would be OK with a filtering system being developed *IF* and only IF:

  • The filter is opt-in on a user or ISP level. This means I can choose an ISP that doesn’t do filtering or have filtering removed for my account.
  • The filter list is publicly available along with a detailed reason for the block.
  • Any citizen is able to challenge a blocked site under a set of legal processes, ensuring that the government can not simply ignore it.
  • Large compensation packages to any businesses or individuals who were incorrectly blocked by the filter.

After all, there is a market for filtered connections, for organisations such as businesses or schools, but I don’t want my connections limited in anyway to fit in with someone else’s moral or legal decisions.

At the end of the day, as a free, adult citizen, I demand to be treated as one and left to make my own decisions – if I access illegal content, prosecute me, but let me make my own decisions on what is moral and right.

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