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Jan 11, 2008

Why government internet filtering won’t work

If such magic devices as “filters that would prevent access to child p-rn-graphy” existed I’d buy three. I’d also buy a perpetual motion machine and an elixir of eternal youth, writes Stilgherrian.

Broadband minister Stephen Conroy proposes to clean up the internet. It won’t work. But Senator Conroy has framed this as “fighting child p-rn-graphy”, so rational debate is unlikely.

If this was only about “prohibited content”, the emotive rhetoric from Child Wise would be bearable. Indeed, if such magic devices as “filters that would prevent access to child p-rn-graphy” existed I’d buy three. I’d also buy a perpetual motion machine and an elixir of eternal youth.

However ALP policy says “the ACMA ‘blacklist’ will… be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.”

Inappropriate according to whom? What’s “appropriate” depends on a child’s age and the views of their parents. One household might need different levels of filtering. Individual filters are the go, if you want them, available free through NetAlert (though few people are interested).

So why hand the government a comprehensive mechanism for blocking internet content? As Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett says, “I have little faith that the current government will… be unable to resist the urge to continually increase the scope.”

Fortunately, a “clean feed” is impossible. There’s two ways to block “bad stuff”: keep a list of “bad sites” and block them, or look at the content “live” and figure out whether it’s good or bad on the fly. Both are used in spam filtering and that’s 100% effective, right? Right.

Tools like the Storm botnet use literally millions of hacked computers, and the data source changes every second. A bureaucratic “blacklist” simply can’t win this arms race.

Even with legal distribution like YouTube, some content is kid-friendly, some not. Do you monitor thousands of uploads every day, or just block the lot — and stop children participating in any social networks?

Trying to identify “inappropriate” material automatically generates false positives. Those naked br-asts, are they part of a s-xual act or tonight’s renaissance art homework? Is that naked child someone’s fantasy, or just a proud parent sharing a family photo?

The very fact that Crikey has to modify “bad words” (note the hyphens scattered through this item) shows how stupid these filters are.

Perhaps Tim Dunlop is right: “It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this is all a sop to Family First in order to garner their support in other matters.”

A “substantial trial” of ISP-level filtering, says Senator Conroy, “is proposed to be completed at the end of June 2008.”

Once that’s done, why not ask the police how many p–dophiles they’d round up if they received the $189m Howard allocated to NetAlert.

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5 thoughts on “Why government internet filtering won’t work

  1. dermot McGuire

    Mr Wilson the middle ground is with mums and dads not filters at Government level.

  2. Stephen WIlson

    I’m a security expert, I know filtering per se is impossible, but why ridicule and pillory any and all attempts to do something about access to extreme material on the Net? Is there no middle ground? Stephen Wilson, Lockstep Consulting.

  3. dermot mcguire

    solutions you sell perhaps?

  4. Stephen Wilson

    As I said, I know filters don’t work. But is there no room in the debate for other technical solutions? Parents don’t know what’s up. Even if they did, education & surveillance are not enough. We don’t rely on education alone for e.g. car safety!

  5. jk

    The NSW Department of Education has banned access through its servers to YouTube and many other sites. So kids lose access to the valuable resources posted there and also are prevented from learning how to browse wisely.