The DIA Internet Filter

As reported in the media, two ISPs (Watchdog and Maxnet) are now using the Government's Internet filter, so it is live and operational. It looks like the three big ISPs – Telecom, Telstra-Clear and will also start using it later this year.

In this post I want to go over why the filter is a bad thing, but also the steps DIA has gone to, to make it less of a bad thing.

I'm going to do it in reverse order, and start with the steps DIA have taken, to make it “less bad” before I then turn to why it is still “bad”.

  1. It is voluntary, not compulsory. However having the filter in the first place means that a future Govt could seek to make it compulsory, if they feel not enough ISPs use it.
  2. Its scope is child pornography only, not all objectionable material, or other material such as terrorism related sites (which Australia plans to block)
  3. DIA have entrenched the scope, being just child pornography, in both the contracts with ISPs, and the contract with the software licensee. In other words the Government can not unilaterally expand the scope of this filter. This is especially welcome.
  4. DIA have put in place an Independent Reference Group, to monitor the scheme and verify that sites blocked are all within scope etc.
  5. The filter will not just block a (as in the UK) but bring up a page telling someone it is being blocked, and allowing them to anonymously “appeal” the blocking, if they feel the page or site should not be blocked.
  6. The filter is not one based on keywords, but on actual sites checked regularly for child pornography content. The level of false positives should be very very low.
  7. The technical design of the filter is well done (for a filter) and most http requests will not go through the filter.

So I do give credit to DIA for their efforts to mitigate the negatives effects of a filter. However that does not mean, it goes from being a bad thing to a good thing. Here are the key reasons why I think the filter is still a bad thing:

  1. It causes the Internet to lie – it breaks the Internet. The filter means that a user's request to view a particular page gets diverted and they get a false response. Now, this may be done with the best of motives, but it does fundamentally break the Internet.
  2. It sets up a principle that rather than prosecute people for illegal material upon the Internet, you block portions of the Internet that may contain illegal material. This is a bad principle.
  3. It is almost inevitable that other government agencies will, over time, want to add more material to the filter to be blocked. Now DIA have set it up so they can't just add it to the DIA's filter, but once you have one government filter, it is easier to set up a second. An example of this comes from this UK story a few days ago, where some peers in the House of Lords propose that as ISPs there already operate a filter for child abuse sites, they could also easily add onto it sites which breach copyright. One could also imagine some agencies wanting sites that breach suppression orders filtered, and if the Electoral Finance had endured, maybe someone would advocate sites that illegally offer an election opinion be blocked. This is a very very slippery slope.
  4. The filter is run by a Government Department, not by an outside organisation such as in the UK. I think DIA did it themselves as they had the capability to do so, but again I think it is an unhelpful precedent to have the Government itself running a filter.
  5. It may result in a false sense of security about access to child abuse images being blocked. Only websites will be blocked and most images are traded in chat rooms and peer to peer.
  6. As a centralised filter (the best filters are those people apply to their individual connection) it may introduce a single point of failure for much of the NZ Internet, as outlined here on Tech Liberty.

InternetNZ has a position paper on the filter, which is a useful resource.

The filter is now operational, with two ISPs. I suggest people talk to their ISPs about whether or not they plan to use the filter or not, and what your views as customers are.

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