Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the censorship warpath

I have been diverted just lately, preparing a submission to my federal government to drop its nonsensical IP filtering program, Clean Feed. One intention of protecting children who were vulnerable due to claimed parental computer illiteracy. However the system is being tested in Australia without any great explanation or wider community consultation.

I would be the first to stand in line to fight abuse of any kind, abuse against children or indeed any vulnerable person or group of people. Clean Feed is an abuse against all internet users in this country and a growing number of web developers globally. It is highly doubtful the system can achieve its more or less stated goals, what it does is penalise legitimate users and sites.

Have a look at this lot

I have been, or at least attempted to be, a contributor on since its inception. We, there are a team of us, comment on a wide range of political, social and economic issues. However early this year I found that I was blocked from reaching the site from Australia. Then we found all sites related to that local IP address were blocked.

I challenge anyone to look at this list of sites and find anything even close to offensive or abusive to anyone, perhaps with the exception of politicians who are fair game. - An archive of the US political blog which redirects here - The personal and professional online portfolio of Giff Constable, an New York entrepreneur - A "Food Blog" run by Giff Constable - A parked domain intended as a future genealogy site. - The personal and professional online portfolio of Jeremy Epstein, a Bay Area artist and UI designer - A personal/professional blog belonging to Giff Constable - - An online real-time search-engine optimization tool authored by William Herndon - The online website of Anne Herndon's 'Travel Concierge' company[.net] - The personal website of Jeff Jacobson, a Boston entrepreneur who specializes in virtual reality software for museums and foundations - A personal website for the wedding of Jeff Jacobson to his partner.[.net|.org] - The not for-profit foundation of Jeff Jacobson for distribution of his open-source VR software. - A US, multi-author, political blog - An online, "independent contractors' assistant" that helps professionals estimate contract rates and taxes, authored by William Herndon - The personal website of Anne and William Herndon of San Francisco, CA, USA

In June 2008 the systems administrators, Australian Communications and Media Authority [report PDF], defensively claimed that just 1061 URLs had been actually blocked. I assume they mean were actually targets of a block. Then they went on to claim “Internet filtering blacklist “creeping” to include legal content Web sites is justified…”

Minister Conroy later conceded that ‘creep’ might be a legitimate political issue; sure is minister. Just be this list that target figure can be multiplied by 16. The trouble is, with the secrecy surrounding this whole program, ISP privacy provisions and the nature of the internet we simply don’t know what the real target was or how many neighbouring IP addresses have been affected.

Given the lack of any obviously offensive, abusive or otherwise dangerous cont on these sites then the abuse charge must turn back on those who initiated poorly considered approach to an incredibly serious issue. I repeat just one passage here from my submission:

Daily, in my current situation, I hear a ‘child mother’ verbally abusing a very young child. So the mother is not coping, but the long term damage to the child is predictable. I have watched as adults sell drugs to children in school uniform, and fruitlessly reported the same. The drug dealers keep trading and doubtless include sexual abuse in that trade. We all see evidence, from time to time, of family abuse, and generally are helpless even if intervention is called for.

It verges on obscenity to spend tens of millions of dollars on a negative censorship campaign when our communities lack the resources to confront real life situations.

New Zealand joins the campaign

It looks like New Zealand is set to be the next country to get country-wide internet filtering, according to a blog post on Geekzone. The New Zealand department of internal affairs has released a draft proposal that outlines the filtering system.
According to the document, the filtering system is for cases where "A person who views a website containing chlid sexual abuse images is in possession of those images, if only for the period they appear on the screen. The Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System therefore will help prevent inadvertent exposure to these images and will also help prevent New Zealanders from committing crimes."

Where does it all come from?

I would now posit that law enforcement agencies are behind these ill founded initiatives. I come to that position on the basis of a growing number of laws being created to deal with the systems inability to deal with the real problems. That we constantly need new laws to fight anti-social behaviour says more about the quality and efficiency of the agencies.

In Australia and beyond new laws had to be created to deal with terrorism, but the acts of terrorism are well catered for under criminal law. What the cops really wanted was a way to hold suspects, incommunicado, until they could squeeze a confession from them. Well that didn’t really work.

There is the now famous RICO in the US, emulated elsewhere of course. The idea was that the really big crims were able to distance themselves from action and evidence of criminality. These laws cut through that, but are more often used to snag small time criminals who should already be vulnerable under existing laws.

Now it is biker gangs, for much the same reason as RICO, perhaps increasing the reach of guilt by association in the process. Then there is the clamour for special weapons, apparently it’s not good to shoot someone dead, much better to taser them to death. The internet is a relatively new medium, but the crimes and anti social behaviour on the internet are still the same old stuff covered by the same old and new laws.

We know that public officials, elected or otherwise, including police are not immune from breaches of criminal law and other anti-social behaviour. There is no rush to create special laws to deal with that class and generally when ‘standards’ are set the tend to disappear again quickly. The question is, should these authority figures be expected to beyond the foibles of the rest of society? Probably not.

Prohibitions and censorship have no place in a liberal democracy, despite a tendency for authorities to control. They are an abuse of our rights and freedoms, which come of course with responsibilities. More emphasis should be placed on social responsibilities rather that the bullying and abusive behaviour we have come to expect from authority.


Kvatch said...

I'm can't wait for the morons in the Australian and other governments to wake up. With my next billing cycle, I'm going to start switching the IP's of the most critical of our sites to try and circumvent the Australian censors, but of course, this is only a blocking maneuver.

Hope your fight is successful Cartledge. We're all pulling for you on this side of the Pacific.

Cartledge said...

Kvatch, I am mortified that you should even have to contemplate these IP switches. The idea of seemingly arbitrary blocks to any of your audience is not good enough.
I will continue the fight this end. Melbourne might be a better place to do it from.