A friend recently said that he thought he’d found a flaw in my arguments. Firstly I was saying that the DIA’s Internet filtering scheme won’t really work, and secondly I was saying that it was the first step on the slippery slope of out of control Internet censorship. How can the filtering scheme be a threat if it doesn’t even work?
There are two answers to this.
1. Does the Filter Work?
The Internet filtering scheme proposed by the Department of Internal Affairs is good at some things and bad at others.
What It’s Good At
The Netclean filter used by the DIA is limited to stopping access to particular websites or parts of websites based on their Internet address and path. This means that it’s good at stopping casual access to a known web-page that doesn’t get moved around.
If, for the sake of argument, the DIA decided to use the system to ban access to a certain page on Wikipedia, this would easily stop normal Internet users from accessing the page. They would try to visit the page, they’d get the page saying it had been banned – and they’d stop there because they probably don’t really care that much, nor do they know how to get around the filter.
What It’s Not so Good At
It’s not very good at stopping people who are deliberately trading illegal material. Firstly, they’re coordinating the trading by chat and then sharing the files using peer to peer (P2P) systems – both of which aren’t blocked by the DIA’s Internet filter. Secondly, the content keeps getting moved around in order to avoid being shut down. Thirdly, the people doing this know that what they’re doing is wrong and illegal, so they’re actively taking measures to protect themselves such as using encrypted proxies in other countries. The filter will hardly even slow them down.
The more conspiracy-minded among you might ask why the DIA are trying to implement a scheme that won’t do a very good job of achieving it’s stated purpose but could be used to block access for normal people to normal websites.
2. The Filtering Principle
The more important reason to my mind is the slippery slope argument. While the currently proposed Internet filtering scheme is more ineffectual than scary, a successful implementation will establish some important and far-reaching principles such as:
- The Department of Internal Affairs has the right to arbitrarily decide to filter the Internet.
- The DIA has the right to decide what material should be filtered.
- It is acceptable for the government to intercept and examine Internet traffic without a search warrant.
- When censoring Internet content there is no need to meet the same oversight requirements that apply when censoring books or movies.
- The ISPs will happily censor their users.
I don’t agree with these principles, and once they’re established in practice it will be significantly harder to argue against them in the future if things change. For example, if the DIA decided to change the methodology used for the filtering to a more invasive/disruptive one, or chose to drastically extend the scope of the material to be filtered.
So, to answer the original question, the DIA’s proposed Internet filter will be ineffectual at stopping the trade in child pornography, and it’s the implications of implementing it that particularly worry me.