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A word on the Australian Internet censorship scandal

This content is 14 years old and may not reflect reality today nor the author’s current opinion. Please keep its age in mind as you read it.

I’ve had a quick scan over Senator Stephen Conroy‘s infamous, long-awaited report on the efficacy of current Internet filtering technology and find it to be nothing short of scandalous. Without getting into the nitty gritty details (for example, how a filtering solution can achieve the impossible by improving rather than degrading the performance of encrypted, random transfers), it reads like it’s a whitepaper for one of the various purveyors of censorship technology.

The cynic in me insisted I take a quick look at who these Enex Pty Ltd jabbers are anyway – who knows, they could be an industry lobby group for all we know. Sure enough, a quick look at their corporate client list reveals (based on some quick Google searching) over a dozen companies who make a living selling commercial censorship technology:

  • Anthology Solutions
  • Content Keeper Technologies
  • Content Watch
  • F-Secure Corporation
  • Internet Sheriff Technology
  • Manaccom
  • MessageLabs
  • NetBox Blue
  • Netgear
  • Netsweeper
  • PC Tools Software
  • Raritan (?)
  • Secure Computing Corporation (McAfee)
  • Symantec
  • Trend Micro

To put things in perspective, this represents around a quarter of their published client list, and that’s not including half a dozen or so service providers that could arguably be thrown in with this bunch. Who in their right mind would risk upsetting one in four of their paying customers by writing a report critical of their products? And does anyone really believe that these vendors resisted the urge to apply pressure? Or that there were not personal relationships involved? I don’t, not for a second. In my opinion this report was rigged from the outset to succeed, and in doing so deprive Australians of essential civil liberties.

The report itself is fatally flawed; the error margins are significant (e.g. “a conservative +/-10 percent”), critical controls were missing (e.g. “as much as 40 percent of an internet service performance could be lost [due to factors outside of our control]”), outrageous assumptions were used (e.g. “performance impact is considered minimal if between 10 and 20 percent”) and perhaps most importantly of all, it’s creator has an obvious conflict of interest. I don’t consider it to be worth the paper it’s [not] printed on.

Another deeply concerning development is government grants that would encourage ISPs to go beyond the mandatory filters, despite all censorship systems tested reporting 2.5-3.5% false positive rates (that is, where innocuous/legitimate content is filtered). To put that in perspective, the best part of a billion legitimate pages would be improperly filtered (according to Wikipedia stats), or around 1 page in 30.

Speaking of Wikipedia, many of the systems are hybrid which means that hosts known to be clean would be ignored by IP (which is much more efficient). If, however, even a single page were problematic then the entire site (and all others sharing its’ IPs) would be forced through a filtering proxy. This would affect some of the most popular sites on the Internet (such as Wikipedia and YouTube), not to mention other increasingly useful services like WikiLeaks (no doubt silencing such services is seen as a fringe benefit to our self-appointed censors). Need I remind you that similar filters in Britain caused severe problems for Wikipedia over a single CD cover only last year.

Another consideration that has not been covered anywhere near enough is the performance impact on cloud computing services. Web interfaces like Facebook, Twitter and Gmail are extremely sensitive to latency introduced by proxies and raw computing services like Amazon’s S3 are sensitive to bandwidth limitations. Then you have the problem of platforms like Google App Engine, Google Sites & Microsoft Web Office which are both difficult to identify (they have many IPs which are not disclosed and difficult if not impossible to enumerate) and which host content for a massive number of customers. If even one person shares a document deemed obnoxious to their sensibilities then the performance will be reduced to unacceptable levels for everyone until it is removed (and then some).

It is my contention that censorship is completely incompatible with cloud computing, and that this alone is reason enough to scuttle it. In the mean time Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has just landed themselves a new life member and I encourage anyone who cares about their future and that of their children to join as well (my friends in the USA may want to take a look at the EFF and Europeans the FFII).

Thanks to Gizmodo Australia for the image above, used without permission but with thanks. No thanks to Gizmodo for breaking the link.