Why Even an Ineffectual Filter is Worrying

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:

  1. The Department of Internal Affairs has the right to arbitrarily decide to filter the Internet.
  2. The DIA has the right to decide what material should be filtered.
  3. It is acceptable for the government to intercept and examine Internet traffic without a search warrant.
  4. When censoring Internet content there is no need to meet the same oversight requirements that apply when censoring books or movies.
  5. 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.

8 Responses to “Why Even an Ineffectual Filter is Worrying”

  1. 1Joseph on Sep 10, 2009 at 9:56 pm:

    You make alot of points there of which I think you might miss the point

    The system as advertised by DIA and even quoted on your blog is a website filtering system what part of website includes peer to peer.

    From what I have read they are not deciding what to filter, they being the DIA they are filtering what is in there mandate and even then its limited. they are only focusing on child abuse. potentially they could cover beastiality, rape hell even terrorism if you read the act on what is objectionable but from what I have seen on the news and your site it is only child abuse

    the DIA has no powers to my knowledge to perform intercepts and I am sure they would have cleared the system with the appropriate authorities whomever they are that this would not be the issue well I would hope the guys running it would have thought of that.

    There has been a comment about oversight committes has there not, I think that should satisfy that.

    I think ISP’s are just happy that someone is helping out. I personally think that this system could work and the government is actually trying to be transparent about it. no offence but you seem to be making a mountain out of a mole hill.

    as usual this blog is continuing to be a good read, keep up the postings

  2. 2Grant on Sep 11, 2009 at 5:10 pm:

    Joseph – “they are not deciding what to filter, they being the DIA they are filtering what is in there mandate” …

    There is several problems with this;
    1) who exactly is “they” who are deciding what to filter. Do you know who these people are, and do they share your POV? Do you trust them 100%? We are allowed to know when it comes to Book, Film censorship who are making the decisions and what the decisions are – why not for the net?.

    2) Simply having a mandate does not make it easy; look at some of the difficult decisions the current censorship board over movies/books that might cover rape/child abuse etc. Terrorism is even more difficult – who is a terrorist depends greatly on your politics – just look at the current Chinese views on who are terrorists (and there blocking of everything that might contradict the government views at the time)

    I have used the example of Simpsons cartoon porn before – is this child abuse? It certainly has been blocked before in some states. There is huge grey areas about some things.

    Seems to me that the current system of having the DIA going after people possessing objectionable material, no matter where/how they get it (web/p2p,mail order) is a better system as at the end of the day the miscreants doing evil stuff end up in a court for a real judge to decide if they are guilty or not. Not some faceless DIA bureaucrat.

  3. 3Joseph on Sep 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm:


    they dont have a point of view, they are enforcing legislation ie they dont make the ruels. From what I have read on their site http://www.censorship.dia.govt.nz They are guided by the chief censors office in terms of what would be deemed objectionable.

    Regarding trust, that is something whilst it is a hot point you cant really comment on as I geuss we all have to trust the government.

    There was a comment or a post on nzheralds site I believe that said they were with the reviews of sites creating a report based database that lists the sites and the reasons for blocking however I dont think that is publicily available.

    The filter is just for child abuse nothing else and web based access to it. that is pretty cut and dry in my mind.

    Regarding the simpsons image, have you submitted that same image to the chief censor and seen his opinion?

  4. 4thomas on Sep 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm:

    Hi Joseph,

    The DIA aren’t actually enforcing legislation – there is no legislation that clearly gives them the right to filter the Internet. There is legislation that bans people from owning/producing certain types of material, but as this legislation includes far more than images of child sexual abuse, I think we’d have to say that the DIA is making rules and choosing what to ban with the filter.

    In particular, I don’t see that the current law gives the DIA the power to intercept people’s Internet traffic and examine it before either blocking it or letting it through. That’s exactly what their filter is doing.

    More importantly, I don’t think we can blindly trust the government – our democracy doesn’t work that way. We pass laws like the Official Information Act and set up bodies such as the Ombudsman because we know that our government is run by people, and people have a tendency to bend the rules in their favour.

    The DIA have already admitted that they’ve bent the rules they created for themselves – initially they said the filter was only for images, but now they’ve said that they’re blocking link sites and text articles too. You may argue that this is acceptable – but why are they already breaking their own rules?

    This is why, if we are going to have this sort of Internet filter, it has to be run in an open and accountable way with proper oversight. I do not believe that their proposed Independent Reference Group provides that.

  5. 5joespeh on Sep 15, 2009 at 11:02 am:


    they can’t make the rules they are enforcement not legislative. You are correct I concede in that there is no legislation that states internet filtering.

    link sites from what I gather still conatin images ie advertising and I already agree with the text stories as they would emit the same emotion as someone viewing a picture. I promote the abuse of children. They are not breaking rules they are sticking to them I would think

    The reference group has not been setup yet, unless DIA have updated there code of conduct so how can you say that it doesnt provide proper oversight.

    I am afraid you are making something up in that respect.

  6. 6joespeh on Sep 15, 2009 at 11:03 am:

    oops it should have said I.e promote the abuse of children please excuse, you cant edit these things

  7. 7thomas on Sep 15, 2009 at 11:20 am:

    I can say that the Independent Reference Group doesn’t provide proper oversight after reading the DIA’s Draft Code of Practice that specifies how it will work.

    I explain my arguments further at: http://thomasbeagle.net/2009/08/25/draft-code-of-practice/

  8. 8joespeh on Sep 15, 2009 at 2:50 pm:

    keyword here is draft