DIA and the Child Porn Filter

The Herald reports:

Internet service providers will soon begin blocking access to hundreds of websites that are on a secret blacklist compiled by the Department of Internal Affairs, but critics say the system lacks transparency.

Some ISPs – those that choose to use the service.

There are two sorts of views about the desirability of a voluntary filtering scheme to block child pron sites. Both have some validity.

One view is that any sort of filtering sets a bad precedent. That if you accept a filter for child porn sites, then someone may propose a filter for copyright infringing sites, or sites that advocate crime, or sites that are defamatory of someone. The concern is that this is the thin end of the wedge. The argument is you don’t block sites to stop people breaking the law, you prosecute them afterwards for doing so.

The other view is that if ISPs do not act to voluntarily block access to child porn sites, then it will give ammunition to those who want compulsory filtering such as in Australia, and that such compulsory filters may be far wider than just child pornography. It is better for most ISPs to have input into a voluntary filtering scheme, than have a compulsory one implemented on them.

The department this week announced its new Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System, which it said would help fight child sex abuse. The $150,000 software will be provided free of charge to ISPs in a couple of months and will reroute all site requests to Government-owned servers. The software, called Whitebox, compares users’ site requests with a list of banned links. If a match is found, the request is denied. It will not cover email, file sharing or borderline material.

The best info on the proposed scheme comes from Thomas Beagle who has an FAQ on it.

Critics say the system has been introduced by stealth and lacks accountability. The department will not disclose the 7000 objectionable websites for fear “inevitably some people would visit them in the interim”, effectively facilitating further offending and making the department party to the further exploitation of children.

Through my work with InternetNZ, I got briefed on the proposed scheme some months ago.To be honest I did not realise until recently that info on the proposed scheme wasn’t in the public domain. As DIA had been talking to various ISPs, I just assumed it wasn’t a big secret. I actually suggested the DIA be invited to make a presentation to the InternetNZ AGM, which is a public forum, and they seemed relaxed at that. I suspect it has been “secret” more by neglect rather than design.

InternetNZ has had a healthy constructive relationship with DIA for some years. Around four years ago we supplied a technical expert to test the UK filtering scheme, and to check for stuff like false positives – ie does the filter block sites that are not hosting child pornography.

In terms of listing the websites that will be blocked, I have some sympathy for the notion that this is undesirable as it is like publishing a guide to find all the child porn sites. But I also understand that many people could be nervous with a regime of “Just trust the DIA”. A suggestion I made was that maybe one could have the Office of the Auditor-General empowered to audit the filter list every six months or so, to certify it has not been expanded beyond its mandate. Mind you I feel sorry for the poor staffer who would have to check some of the sites out to do such verificiation.

Internal Affairs censorship compliance head Steve O’Brien said the blacklist would be personally reviewed by staff each month and would be restricted to paedophilic content only.

This was a key area I quizzed the DIA staffer on. I am very much oppossed to filters that work on keywords, assumptions etc as these inevitable have false positives – they block sites they should not. A manually reviewed list is the only way to go.

Also essential (to me) is that the filter will be directed towards child porn sites only, and not all sites with “objectionable” content. While most prosecutions in NZ for “objectionable” content relate to child porn, the definition of objectionable is wider. It includes (for example) sex involving urine or faeces. It is somewhat strange that it is not actually illegal to perform or receive a golden shower, but it is illegal to view an imagine of a golden shower!

Now just so no one gets the wrong idea, I find the idea of sex involving wees or poos as bloody disgusting, and am not a champion for such practises. Yuck. But they are not like child porn, in that child porn has actual real victims – the abused kids. So to my mind it is important a filer targets child porn only, and not the wider definition of all objectionable or illegal material. DIA agree, which is good. I imagine the fear of some people is that the definition could be widened in future. For my part I don’t detect any desire on behalf of DIA to grow it in future. They have a pretty nasty job to do, and generally do it pretty well. That is not to say I agree with everything they do.

Filtering systems in Australia, Denmark and Britain have been accused of serious flaws, with unexplained blacklistings of straight and gay pornography, Wikipedia articles and small businesses.

Yep errors do get made. However there is a system to get a decision reviewed if you get told a site is blocked, and you think it should not be.

Mr Beagle said he favoured providing optional clean feeds for users, but believed Governments would be tempted to expand the blacklist in reaction to events.

I am against any filter being compulsory for ISPs. And I agree user level decisions are best. But personally I am pretty relaxed about individual ISPs making a decision about whether or not they would use the DIA filter – so long as they do so transparently and inform customers they have done so. Some ISPs may even use it as a marketing tool that they provide a slightly “safer” environment, while other ISPs may choose not to take part, and use the fact they are unfiltered as a marketing tool.

What would I do if my ISP, choose to use the DIA filter? So long as it was restricted to child porn sites only, and so long as there was some sort of external review (such as the Office of the Auditor-General), I would stay with that ISP.

Some ISPs could even choose to provide it as an option for customers to select as a preference, but I understand that require a bit more than just a line of code.

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