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Analysis of the Internet Censorship announcement – What does it really mean?

December 17, 2009

Since yesterday I’ve read Conroy’s speech, many articles and blog posts on the Governments announcement to go ahead with the “cleanfeed” and the release of the Enex Testlab report. I found that not only is the information provided by Conroy and the report vague and lacking supporting facts, so are the sensational articles and “cleanfeed” bashing blog posts. I thought it was time to do some research and find out what all this really means. My findings follow…

What was actually announced?
Senator Stephen Conroy has announced “new measures to help Australian families stay safer when they are online”.

These measures include:
* The introduction of mandatory ISP-level filtering of Refused Classification (RC)–rated content.
* A grants program to encourage ISPs to offer, on a commercial basis, additional optional ISP-level filtering services for wider categories of content identified by households.
* Increased funding for a range of education, awareness and counseling services.

Clearly the first point here is what all the commotion is about. Conroy gave more detailed information on this:

The Government will introduce legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to require all ISPs to block RC-rated material hosted on overseas servers.

RC-rated material includes child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence including rape, and the detailed instruction of crime or drug use. Under the National Classification Scheme and related enforcement legislation it is already illegal to distribute, sell or make available for hire RC-rated films, computer games and publications.

This material is currently subject to take-down notices by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) if it is hosted online in Australia. However, ACMA is unable to directly regulate content hosted overseas. This action is an additional measure to the existing take-down regime for Australia-hosted content.

What is RC-rated material?
In the announcement Conroy says RC-rated content includes child sex abuse content, bestiality, sexual violence including rape, and the detailed instruction of crime or drug use. Conroy clearly states that “the criteria for Refused Classification is determined by the National Classification Board and is underpinned by legislation”. There seem to be two distinct RC classifications, one for publications and one for movies and video games. Instead of trying to understand what an RC rating is, I found it easier to find out what isn’t an X18+ rating: “…This classification is a special and legally restricted category which contains only sexually explicit material… …It does not allow sexually assaultive language. Nor does it allow consensual depictions which purposefully demean anyone involved in that activity for the enjoyment of viewers. Fetishes such as body piercing, application of substances such as candle wax, “golden showers”, bondage, spanking or fisting are not permitted….” This X18+ rating however only applies to the ACT and Northern Territory. The states in Australia only have an R18+ rating which excludes any depiction of sexually explicit material. Does that mean that sexually explicit material will be rated RC? Considering the statement referring to child sex abuse content, etc it seems like X18+ content will not be filtered, however, it is currently prohibited to host X18+ content in Australia making it likely that amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act will actually include X18+ rated content in the filter.

What will be filtered?
It’s unclear how the filter will be implemented, but considering the blacklist will be a list of web addresses it seems it will only block web browsing to those addresses. Clearly not filtered are: Email, Newsgroups, Peer2Peer Traffic, FTP, Proxied web traffic, Instant Messaging. Judging from the leaked ACMA blacklist posted on wikileaks (to which I won’t link, as that might get my blog put on the ACMA blacklist) some sites get blocked completely, yet others such as wikipedia only have a few pages blocked. What happens to User Generated Content sites such as facebook.com, flickr.com, twitpic.com, etc, etc. These are all heavily used sites and anyone can upload RC rated material to these. Will only some pages be blocked, or the entire domain? Does this mean that if you’re site is big you won’t be completely blocked but if you’re a small site you’re more likely to blocked completely? Facebook is an interesting case, because it’s not possible to block content based on the url in many cases because facebook is a full AJAX driven site now.

Currently the ACMA blacklist contains only about 2000 to 3000 URLs and unless you are seeking out RC rated content I think it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever end up on any of these sites. Most of these have already been removed from Google, so you won’t find them while searching Google. Funnily enough it seems that the ACMA blacklist is the definitive source on where to find RC rated content on the web. Most RC rated content however is spread through other media such as email, e-groups, newsgroups, Bulletin Board Systems, Chat rooms and P2P networks. If the web is used the sites generally only stay up for a very limited time because they get shut down by ISPs or they are run from hacked computers. The proposed process of a complaint driven list won’t have any effect on these sites as it’s likely to be too slow. So it seems to be that the main outcome of this filter will be that families get protected against content they will never go to, while not being protected against this content in places where they are more likely to accidentally run into it. That is if the only thing blocked is indeed RC rated content and not X18+ rated content. While the system has very little use to block child pornography, it could be used to some effect to block gambling sites, forums where users discuss topics such as euthanasia, gay/lesbian or whatever at the time is considered “revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”.

Is there a demand for this filter?
From an SMH article: “a national telephone poll of 1100 people, conducted by Galaxy and commissioned by online activist group GetUp, found that only 5 per cent of Australians want ISPs to be responsible for protecting children online and only 4 per cent want Government to have this responsibility.”
Net Alert, which was a government program to provide free filtering software was canceled at the end of last year because it was only installed on 26,000 computers.
So even though not many Australians actually want this filter, it seems it is still being pursued because it was an election promise.

What is the goal of the filter?
Some excerpts from Conroy’s announcement:

…Most Australians acknowledge that there is some internet content which is not acceptable in any civilised society. It is important that all Australians, particularly young children, are protected from this material. … The Government should do all that it can to protect Australians from exposure to RC-rated content. … Reduce Exposure—through mandatory filtering of RC material, expansion of the RC content list to incorporate more child sexual abuse material hosted overseas, and optional filtering for additional material as determined by families….

From the statement it seems the goal is to protect Australian children (there are a lot of references to family/parents/children) from inadvertently stumbling upon RC rated content (child pornography in particular). The goal and the means seem to not fit very well. Many of the other proposed measures however make a lot of sense, such as improving awareness and educate children and parents.

Who is going to pay for this?
At least one is clear. Tax payers will pay for any money that the government spends on trials, maintaining the blacklist, etc. Internet users will pay for the extra cost for the ISPs to implement the filters. I haven’t been able to find any information on how much this would cost for ISPs to implement and therefore how much it will increase our internet bills.

Will it slow down the internet?
According to Telstra the filtering will slow down the connection by one seventieth of the blink of an eye. The average time of the blink of an eye is 300 to 400 milliseconds, so it will slow our connections down by about 5 milliseconds. Considering that my connection time to bigpond.com is currently about 25 milliseconds, this filter adds 20% to my latency. This sounds like a lot, but you won’t notice this while browsing the web. You might however notice this significantly in latency sensitive applications. Australia has already fairly high latency compared to other parts of the world and adding to this certainly doesn’t help.

Can the list be used to harm your competitors?
With “User Generated Content” sites it is possible for anyone to post RC rated content on their site. So if your competitor allows user generated content, all you have to do is post some instructions on how to build a bomb and get your competitor blacklisted. The leaked ACMA list had dates in it indicating those were the dates the list was updated. There were weeks between updates so if you get accidentally listed it will be interesting to see how long it would actually take to get unlisted. Long enough to make your competitor go bankrupt.

More good stuff on wikipedia.

Ok, I only got through about half of what I planned, but it’s time to get some sleep.

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From → Rubbish

One Comment
  1. Craig permalink

    Great post!

    Note that the DBCDE’s FAQ suggests that for high trafficked sites they will request the takedown of RC material per site policies. I would assume that if a high traffic sitel did not have such a policy it would be blocked.

    User-generated content provides the greatest
    challenge as where prepublication moderation is not possible, such as in Facebook, it is highly open to competitive sabotage. In particular, with a secret black list, any moderation is ineffective if the moderators are unaware of which site links are blocked.

    These issues apply to government as well – DBCDE itself published a blocked link submitted by a user during their Digital Economy consultation last year (it remained accessible for several weeks before the user post was disappeared). As far as I know the Department was not fined.

    Also critical to note is that the discussion of illegal content would also be an offense, like the wikileaks example you gave. Therefore any material discussing how to circumvent the filter or how to counter those methods would be blocked, making intelligent discussion on improving the filter impossible online.

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