“Everyone Else is Doing it” is Not an Excuse, Mr Conroy.

As far as I’m concerned the Internet Filter is dead, never to see the light of day again. With the Greens holding the balance of power in the senate and the minority Labor government relying on one Green and three independents in order to pass anything the proposed filter has absolutely no chance of getting through. On the flip side the amendments that would be required to get it through the senate would render the legislation pointless (even more so than it is now) and I don’t think Labor wants to be seen pushing such things through after all the black eyes they got from the past year or so. Still it seems like the dead horse still has a few good beatings left in it and from time to time Senator Conroy will pop up to remind us that it’s still on the table, despite how toxic it has been for them in the past.

Conroy has had the unfortunate luck of getting former Liberal party leader Malcolm Turnbull as his shadow minister and wasted no time ripping into Labor’s policies. Whilst there are some points I agree with Conroy his idea that other countries are filtering somehow justifies the government’s proposal is just plain wrong:

“In Finland, in Sweden, in a range of Western countries, a filter is in place today, and 80, 90, 95 per cent of citizens in those countries, when they use the internet, go through that filter.

“It has no impact on speed and anybody who makes a claim that it has an impact on speed is misleading people.

“If you want to be a strict engineer, it’s 170th of the blink of an eye, but no noticeable effect for an end user. So there is no impact and the accuracy is 100 per cent.”

For all my belly aching about the filter on this blog I’d never touched on the point that in fact yes, some modern western countries had implemented some kind of filter. Sweden’s scheme is the most innocuous of the lot with it merely being a DNS blacklist which will make banned sites just simply not respond (circumvented by using a different DNS provider). Finland’s is similar to Sweden’s in that it is also DNS based but it has been mired with controversy about its accuracy and performance issues that have arisen due to its use. The UK’s is probably the worst of the lot requiring all traffic to be passed through a filter that identifies sites based on the URL provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, a group of 14 people that includes 4 police officers responsible for maintaining the blacklist. Most people in the UK don’t know about this as it’s been around for quite some time and it has also been mired with controversy about its accuracy and accountability.

Depending on the scheme that’s used there is definitely performance impacts to consider. DNS based filtering has the least impact of the lot as a failed DNS query returns quite quickly although it has the potential to slow down sites that load content from blacklisted places¹. The UK’s URL filtering scheme is horrible as it requires the request to be intercepted, inspected and then compared against the list to see whether or not it should be blocked. For small lists and low volumes of traffic this is quite transparent and I have no doubts that it would work. However, even in tests commissioned by Conroy himself, these filters have shown to be unable to cope with high traffic sites should they make it onto the filter. ACMA’s own blacklist has several high traffic sites that would swamp any filter attempting to block them, drastically affecting performance of everyone who was on that filtered connection.

Justifying your actions based on the fact that others are doing it does not make what you do right. Conroy carefully steered clear of mentioning other states that were using censorship schemes that were more closely aligned to what his legislation has proposed (like China and North Korea). The fact remains however that any kind of Internet filter will prove to be ineffectual, inaccurate and will only serve to hurt legitimate users of the Internet. I applaud Conroy’s dedication to his ideas (namely the NBN) but the Internet filter is one bit of policy that he just needs to let go. It’s not winning them any favours anymore and the Labor government really needs all the help it can get over the next 3 years and dropping this turd of a policy would be the first step to reforming themselves, at least in the tech crowd’s eyes.

¹This is a rather contenious point as you could say that any site loading content from a backlisted site more than likely requires blacklisting itself. I’d agree with that point somewhat however the big issue is when a legitimate site gets blacklisted and ends up impacting a wider range of sites. In all the filters there’s been admissions that some material has been inappropriately blocked meaning that there’s always at least the potential for performance impacts.

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