13 July 2010

Internet Censorship In Australia

After the recent shelving of the internet filter in Australia, I figured I'd get my thoughts out there for others to mull over. I'll start off by giving people a reference as to who I am and why I have come up with my opinions on the subject. I am not going to go into the moral debate, merely the technological debate.

I am a geek & IT support worker who has been in the industry for 15 years or so and have had a passion for IT systems for most of my life. I grew up in the days of modems and BBSs, where the exchange of data was not known about by most, let alone monitored by governments. I've seen the internet change very much, but have also seen a lot stay the same.

My first thought about filtering any sort of network is that if you are smart enough, or know someone smart enough, it will never be effective at stopping you from getting what you want. Some of the first filtering systems put in place by parents on home computers were so ineffective that children and teenagers bypassed them without the parent's knowledge within minutes of them being installed. It's no secret that any sort of filtering requires massive amounts of time and energy to just keep blacklists up to date.

Filters, by their very nature offer opportunities to test one's own abilities to bypass them. When I worked for a large telco we did this all the time, the network was very locked down, but we still managed to get through the filter. How? Well, that's another story. Restricting any group of people will just serve to drive illicit activities further underground, and believe me, there are more ways to hide your activities than basic website proxies. The arsenal available to people who wish to conduct themselves illegally is amazingly large. From VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), to encrypted messaging, to encrypted file sharing systems, they all allow anonymous and secure communication.

"Why would this be a problem?" you may ask. Well, if traffic is not encrypted it makes it much easier for law enforcement personnel to actually provide evidence of illegal activities. When information is encrypted, all you can see is where the connection originated from and where it is attempting to connect to. This is made even more difficult by people using VPNs. All you can see is two legitimate connections, no suspicious activity is observed at all.

This brings me to another problem I see with this debate, that there is an assumption that no legitimate activity will be disrupted by the filter. Understanding how filters work, having administered quite a few in my time, I can assure you that EVERYONE will be affected by this. No matter if you're only using social media, or just checking emails, you will not be able to escape the grip of internet filtering. Networks are complex beasts and adding any sort of checking will consume more and more processing power to the tiered routers that connect different networks to each other. The more processing power used, the longer it will take for data to move. There are wide reports that the internet in countries such as China and Iran, that observe massive filtering, is unbelievably slow. No matter how fast the end users' connections are, you will be impacted. A general rule of networking is that the speed of a network is governed by the slowest point on the network, which will be the filtering system essentially.

This will almost definitely have an impact on ISPs (Internet Service Providers) ability to deliver fast, cheap internet to the end user. More staff and more expensive equipment will only serve to raise prices of your connection. There has been no discussion of how users or ISPs will be compensated for such a situation. It seems that Stephen Conroy has not even put any thought into this at all, and judging by his comments on the filter and other technology, I doubt he even understands the full technological implications of filtering.

To have such an ignorant plan that is being decried by such a large proportion of technology companies and experts leads me to believe that the filter is purely just pandering to the Australian Christian Lobby.

While I have a lot more to say on the subject, I think I'll leave it there. To summarise:
  • Filtering does nothing but slow down networks
  • Any filtering can be bypassed with simple tools and protocols
  • The filter has not been looked at from a technological point of view by the government
  • The filter is being used as a way of getting the ACL on board
  • No one benefits from filtering - not law enforcement, ISPs, or end users
Some links you may wish to look at:

Benjamin Franklin said it best:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety


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