December 24, 2007

Fitting A Round Peg Into A Square Hole

The Australian Government is busy fitting an outdated concept into the modern world - they want to censor the Internet the same way TV and movies are censored. The Communications Legislation Amendment (Content Service) Act 2007 (Content Service Act) was passed on 20th of July 2007. This Act inserts a new schedule for regulating all content services delivered via carriage services. This includes:



  1. Prohibiting access to X18+ and RC content;

  2. Prohibiting access to R18+ content, unless access is restricted;

  3. Prohibiting access to MA15+ content, unless access is restricted;

  4. Providers of hosting services, live content services, link services and commercial content services to have in place access restrictions if providing R18+ and commercial MA15+ content;

  5. ‘take down’, ‘service cessation’ and ‘link deletion’ notices to remove content or access to content that is the subject of a complaint; and

  6. A co-regulatory approach that provides for the development of industry codes to address issues including the classification of content, procedures for handling complaints about content and increasing awareness of potential safety issues associated with the use of content services.


I would like to draw attention to point 4, which suffers a severe departure from reality and shows that the legislators behind this Act is out of touch with the modern world.



Firstly, in order for Internet Service Providers (ISP) to determine of R18+ or MA15+ content is being accessed via their network, they would need to monitor in real time the activities of its customers, which is a severe violation of customer privacy.



Secondly, ISPs would need a system which can classify terabytes of information, in a hundred different formats and languages in real time. There are two major problems:



  1. To create such a system would require breakthroughs in image processing, computer linguistics, voice recognition, expert systems, communication and many other fields. It is not to say it can’t be done - it certainly can be done, but at great expense and almost certainly not in the immediate future.

  2. Such a system would be rendered impotent by encryption.


Encryption is Achilles’ heel of this and similar legislations. Encryption allows two parties to securely exchange information i.e. between a website and a web browser. Against encryption even the most sophisticated monitoring systems will fail because they can not access the information being exchanged. There is no way for an ISP to know if the encrypted information they are carrying is R18+ or G rated.



Sure one can block communication based on its point of origin, but there is at the last count more than 108 million websites. The cost of setting up a new website in terms of cost and time is minimal - web hosting and domain name registration costs less than 10usd per month, in others words peanuts. I sincerely hope the futility of doing this is evident. Further the origin of information is no guarantee as to its content. Such a blacklist will inevitably render many innocent websites inaccessible.



Before any one points to the Great Firewall of China as a triumphant example of Internet censorship done right, please consider for a moment the kind of country China is. There is a reason China is one of the two lowest ranking countries in Privacy International’s 2006 International Privacy Ranking, and amongst the Top 20 offenders in The Observer’s Human Right Index 2000.



The Australian Government needs realise that the Internet is a vastly differently beast compared to traditional media. It is the preverbal square hole to the round peg of censorship. Traditional media can be censored relatively easily because its distribution is bounded by location - that is to say the points of distribution, i.e. cinemas, stores, and radio towers, are all on Australian soil and operated by Australian companies. This makes it easy to enforce Australian law and to censor material. New media on the other hand is delivered over the Internet, and has no such limitations. Anyone, either an individual or an organisation, can distribute any material they wish to anyone in the world over the Internet encrypted if needed. In short, Australian law can not be applied to distributors of new media outside Australia, and there is no way determine the nature of encrypted content in order to censor it.



There are of course more problems with this new legislation. One is the requirement to restrict access to contents based on a person’s age. The Government seem not to have learnt from its failure to enforce such restrictions on traditional media. How exactly they hope to achieve it with new media has not been made public - they have only made it known they want it to be so. Perhaps they will require you to present 100 points of ID to a Government representative to purchase a Government approved computer with which to access the Internet, then get council approval of your new “Internet Room” which is shielded from electromagnetic and audio eavesdropping, locked to your fingerprint and retina. It is to protect the children you see.



All in all, the new legislation and the Australian Communication and Media Authority’s new rules are a nothing more than unrealistic wish lists. Wishing for something however doesn’t make it true.



Am I worried about the Government’s attempt at censoring the Internet? No at all. I am quietly confident that it will fail. I am worried what this will cost the Australian people, and whether its inevitable failure will be used as justification to pass more draconian laws all in the name of “protecting the children”.




Cheers,

Steve