The Scope Always Creeps

Three Statements

From the DIA press release titled “Web filter will focus solely on child sex abuse images”:

A filtering system to block websites… will focus solely on websites offering clearly objectionable images of child sexual abuse.

From a letter from Nathan Guy, Minister of Internal Affairs:

I support the Digitial Child Exploitation Filtering System that has been developed by the Department of Internal Affairs to help prevent access to child sexual abuse images. The filtering system will focus solely on known websites offering clearly objectionable images of child sexual abuse.

However, Rory McKinnon has also been writing to the DIA to collect information for an article he wrote for the NZPA. He asked: “Can the minister personally guarantee that the blacklist will not “creep” (that is, expand its scope to include anything other than child sex abuse)?” The response (written by Trevor Henry, Senior Communications Advisor, Regulation and Compliance – 17/7/2009) to this letter was a little different:

The Department confirms that the scope of the filter will be confined to websites carrying images of children being sexually abused but there may be circumstances when a website that contains text files might be blocked. For example, an instructional manual for child abuse or a diary relating to the abuse of an actual child might be blocked.

Scope Creep

You may note that the first two statements very clearly say that the only websites to be filtered will be those that host images of children being sexually abused. The third statement contradicts the first two. It includes examples of other material that might be blocked by the filter, such as a text manual or a description of abuse.

Now, maybe you don’t think that filtering a manual or diary about sexual abuse is that bad – but that’s part of the problem. It often makes sense to extend something just a little bit further… then a little bit further… until finally you end up somewhere quite different from where you started.

For example, if you can filter an article that describes how to sexually abuse a child, can you also filter an article that explains how to get around the filter to read the first article?

The Australian system experienced this exact problem. They started by banning objectionable images and ended up banning entire websites that revealed what was being filtered.

Trusting the Government

Now, it probably bears repeating that I have no sympathy for those who create and distribute child pornography. My argument has always been that filtering won’t work, and that doing it secretly will lead the government to abuse it.

On the second point, the DIA’s position has been that we have to trust them and whatever secret review process they set up. But why should we trust them?

They refuse to give anyone a copy of the full list so that it can be audited, and when asked for a partial version of the list without the full addresses, they revealed that they have started deleting the records so that no one else can audit them either.

Now we find that their statements about only filtering images are also incorrect. The scope of what they’re doing has already grown before the system is out of the trial phase.

Internet filtering is not going to stop child abuse or child pornography and any such scheme is too open to abuse by the government. We should abandon it now – personally I’d rather we spent the money on preventing child abuse.

9 Responses to “The Scope Always Creeps”

  1. 1Morris Nye on Aug 12, 2009 at 10:28 pm:

    Oops, there goes textfiles.com
    Damned archive of BBS files and it’s filthy filthy American style free speech.

  2. 2Jack M. on Aug 12, 2009 at 10:56 pm:

    It always strikes me that if they have:

    (a) a seemingly definitive list of websites with childporn,
    (b) a pretty much universal hatred of child sexual abusers by everyone including other criminals, the hacker community, the public at large, and every government,

    and

    (c) Interpol,

    …then surely it must be a fairly simple matter to find these people, and deal with them appropriately (roast over slow fire, etc). I just don’t understand why this problem has to be dealt with at the “demand” end and not at the surely much more effective “supply” end.

    Am I just not getting it?

    – Jack M.

  3. 3Rich on Aug 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm:

    The UK police have started “taking down” sites (by having their DNS registrar remove the entry, I think) that engage in the heinous crime of ticket touting.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/youandyours/items/03/2009_31_fri.shtml

    They are (deliberately, I think) blurring the distinction between companies (outside the UK) that are blatantly fraudulent and sites that are genuine, but break the UK-specific law that bans the resale of Premier League soccer tickets. That law has no equivalent in most other countries, and the companies are outside UK jurisdiction. But that doesn’t stop the cops from claiming a global right to remove DNS entries (presumably with the compliance of the registrar).

  4. 4Foobar on Aug 13, 2009 at 5:04 am:

    @Jack: Yes, sadly you are not getting it. Clearly, this is all just a ruse to install censorship infrastructure in New Zealand. As I wrote here ( http://www.geekzone.co.nz/foobar/6637 ) there are technically very simple means to take many of these sites down, which do NOT require international cooperation of law-enforcement agencies, and so on. But yet, law enforcement and governments rather have the means to censor the internet. So, what do they do? They continue to let children be exploited and further allow children to be abused, even help the abusers by NOT doing the simple and effective thing to take the sites down, just so that they have a reason to install censorship technology and ‘train’ the public in accepting this. It’s disgusting and someone should consider suing them for not doing what they are required to do, which is to take down those sites when they can and therefore for assisting in the production and distribution of childporn.

    @Thomas: This feature creep is exactly what we all expected, isn’t it? New Zealand is not alone in this. As far as I know, this problem has been reported from every single one (!) of the countries that have installed means to filter.

  5. 5thomas on Aug 13, 2009 at 8:34 am:

    Yes, sadly scope creep does seem to be inevitable and is one of the main reasons I’m against Internet filtering.

    It’s worth remembering that most of the people doing this are working with the best of intentions (at least I think they are). The problem is that their best intentions inevitably lead to undesirable outcomes.

  6. 6Joesph on Aug 14, 2009 at 6:08 pm:

    How is this scope creep though, it is still child abuse material?

    They have not said they will block sites that offer any other material. is a story depicting a child being raped not child abuse or as they put it a manual on abusing children not child abuse. I see this is part of the scope.

    They have also said that they are setting up a code of practice that will dictate the running of the system, apparently they have refused YOU the list but can you not see why. additionally if they were hiding something wouldn;t they just run a quick legislation change through without public consultation rather than setup a voluntary system.

    the australian system had too many varialbes regarding material on there list to ever be effective, at least they are limiting the scope to just child abuse.

  7. 7Emma on Aug 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm:

    I asked the DIA about text specifically, and the reply I got was pretty much identical to that:

    My question:

    Also, given this justification:

    The distribution and viewing of images of this abuse – wrongly called child pornography – is trading in human misery. It is the result of real children being sexually abused and exploited in the worst possible way. Each time anyone anywhere in the world accesses one of those images, the child depicted is victimised again.

    why does the filter cover written and drawn material, where there is no evidence that any child has been harmed in its production?

    Their answer:

    Child sexual abuse material does include text and drawn images because both can support the exploitation of children for sexual purposes. The Department conducts prosecutions for the possession of this type of material. While the filtering list will principally contain websites with images of the sexual abuse of actual children, there may be circumstances when a website that contains text files might be blocked. For example, an instructional manual for child abuse or a diary relating to the abuse of an actual child might be blocked.

    Now, the material they can prosecute over includes writing which appears to support the production of child pornography. It doesn’t have to be pornographic in nature, just expressing that opinion. They ARE going to block this material, but they don’t mention it unless they’re specifically asked. Otherwise they’re happy to give the impression, in highly emotional terms, that they’re only blocking material in which actual children have been harmed.

  8. 8thomas on Aug 17, 2009 at 8:32 am:

    Joseph – it’s scope creep because they have repeatedly said that they would only be filtering actual images of children being abused. They’ve been ‘selling’ the system based on that idea while secretly extending it further. While it’s pretty icky, no children are actually hurt when someone writes a story.

    I do look forward to seeing their proposed code of practice and monitoring group, but I fear it’s going to be more “trust us even though we’re already been caught lying to everyone”.

    Emma – I thought the DIA was at least acting in good faith, but now with this news and the deletion of records, I fear that this may not be entirely the case.

  9. 9Joesphn on Aug 19, 2009 at 9:47 am:

    Thomas

    I do not see this as lying though, I still think stories about child abuse are written by those who want to abuse children. Do you still want those available. How do we know if the story is not based on fact? does it not still fuel the demand? but as you mentioned they are stating that it is imagery they will mainly focus on which is good, I personally like that they take the stories out to as most people enjoy the stories in penthouse and playboy just as much as the images.

    the code of practice from what I have read dictates what a site must have to be included in the list. I am sure there will be an oversight type setup to review it once the filter is running