Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Block the Filter

Reminder – National day of action. On the 6th of March 2010, Block the Filter, Stop Internet Censorship and Stop the Filter will be holding events in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. More info -

I don’t want to be a broken record, but the mandatory internet censorship policy that our Government has locked in, under the pretense of protecting children, is something that I find most disturbing, so I will cover the topic once more.

Protecting children is a noble objective, one that should be paramount with no resource spared, but censoring the internet or as the government terms it “filtering”, can not deliver on this vital objective.

The Government euphemistically refers to its policy for mandatory internet censorship as “filtering”, but filtering is something applied to percolating coffee. Make no mistake; this is censorship, pure and simple.

Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says some internet content is simply not suitable in a civilized society and that “It is important that all Australians, particularly young children, are protected from this material.”

There are currently around 25 billion indexed pages accessible from the World Wide Web, plus an untold number of encrypted and hidden pages which have not been indexed by major search engines.

Even the most clueless of clueless Governments could not seriously entertain that a blacklist could in any way shape or form, provide a meaningful “filtering” solution for that volume of website pages.

It is clear from the outset that this policy has nothing to do with “protecting citizens” and has everything to do with creating additional government authority for the purpose of censoring any internet content that they so choose, in a very targeted manner, as this is the only manner feasible.

If anything, the policy will place children at greater peril, as parents may be given a false sense of security and become more complacent about their children’s online activities. The policy is an easy fix solution, one that requires no real effort by parents in being responsible for their children’s safety, and one that requires no real effort for government to implement. This makes the policy very attractive to all concerned, but again the sense of security is extremely misplaced.

Senator Conroy has announced the requirements that Internet Service Providers censor internet content hosted overseas, will come into effect twelve months from the date of the passage of the legislation.

This conveniently places the commencement of censoring our internet, post Election Day. There’s a reason for this, the Government knows full well how enormously unpopular the policy is.

However rather than listen to just about every respected academic and technical mind in the country, and around 90% of the general population, who are all screaming NO FILTER, the Government seem quite at ease demonstrating utter contempt and disregard for our wishes, providing they can of course do so and still secure re-election.

If you believe what the Government tells you, you may have the impression that the mechanism for “filtering” is purely based upon a “defined list of URLs” or black list which ISPs will deny end user access to.

But of course the Government has not exactly been forthcoming with disclosing the technologies that were utilized in trials during 2009.

Lui Spandas of ARNnet reported in June 2009 that ISPs involved in the trials were using appliance based products which through signature blocking, have capabilities for filtering peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic, instant messaging communications, anonymous website proxies and online gaming sites.

Quoting Webshield Managing director Anthony Pillion, Spandas writes:
“Web filtering is more granular and flexible than just blocking a black list and we haven’t stopped at Web content level.”

Stephen Conroy says the Government will not determine what is blacklisted; rather an independent body will determine what sites are rated as RC (refused classification).

The “independent body” he refers to is otherwise known as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), a government organization.

Currently the Australian Classification Board provides classifications on internet content to the ACMA on request, if and only if, the ACMA receives a complaint about internet content. According to the ACMA website:

The ACMA can only take action about material that is prohibited, or potentially prohibited, under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

This golden rule will now be applied to all overseas content under the filtering policy and already law exists in anticipation of that. The Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, Amended Nov 20th 2009, Vol 2 reads:
If, in the course of an investigation under Division 2 of Part 3 of Schedule 7, the ACMA is satisfied that Internet content hosted outside Australia is prohibited content or potential prohibited content, the ACMA must:

Give each Internet service provider known to the ACMA a written notice (a standard access-prevention notice) directing the provider to take all reasonable steps to prevent end-users from accessing the content.

If you are to attempt discourse with Minister Conroy or worse, ask him to explain the Governments position in this matter, you will receive from his office a publication entitled “Cyber-safety and internet service provider filtering” which will do nothing to address your questions.

One paragraph of this document makes the claim:
“For families that wish to have a wider range of material filtered, including potentially X18+ content and gaming sites, the Government will establish a grants program to encourage ISPs to offer these services on a commercial basis.”

This would appear to contradict the Broadcasting Services Act which, defining Prohibited Content reads:
For the purposes of this Schedule, content (other than content that consists of an eligible electronic publication) is prohibited content if:

(a) The content has been classified RC or X 18+ by the Classification Board; or

(b) Both:

(i) The content has been classified R 18+ by the Classification Board; and

(ii) Access to the content is not subject to a restricted access system.

Further, the Act defines potential prohibited content as follows:
For the purposes of this Schedule, content is potential prohibited content if:

a) the content has not been classified by the Classification Board; and

(b) if the content were to be classified by the Classification Board, there is a substantial likelihood that the content would be prohibited content.

Online video games will also be subject to internet filtering requirements. This presents a double edged injustice, as Australia is currently the only democracy in the world that has no adult classification ratings for video games.

What that means is existing video games, even extremely graphic and adult audience orientated ones, receive a maximum classification rating of MA+ 15 in Australia. This allows minor’s to play games with inappropriate content for their age, often unbeknown to their parents whom mistakenly believe MA+ 15 indicates suitability for ages 15 years and above.

A similar set of circumstances apply to games, which have been outlined in relation to internet content. If someone complains about a game, or the Classification Board receives a tip off about content concerns before a game is released, they revue the game in question. If it is found to fall outside the definition of MA+ 15, then it is classified RC, becoming prohibited content.

It will become very common indeed under these guidelines, for online games to be added to the list for which access is denied.

Already an ever increasing amount of material is being categorized as, and adding to, an extensive list of prohibited content, long before filtering is even due to begin. At this rate, by the time filtering does arrive, it may well be that content from main stream media outlets are the only remaining publications/productions which the Government allows the public to access.

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