Conroy's great internet "filter" unveiled  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

Topic du jour is the Australian government's sneaky pre-Christmas release of their plans to censor the internet, after some mock-trials "proving" the filter will be effective and won't have any adverse side effect - Crikey leads off with - Conroy’s internet filter: so what?.

“Our pilot, and the experience of ISPs in many Western democracies, shows that ISP-level filtering of a defined list of URLs can be delivered with 100% accuracy,” Senator Stephen Conroy said yesterday when announcing that mandatory internet censorship — sorry, “filtering” — is going ahead.

“It also demonstrated that it can be done with negligible impact on internet speed.”

Conroy is right on both counts, as it happens — provided you gloss over that reference to “many” unnamed democracies. I wouldn’t call a dozen countries with ISP-level filtering “many”, and in some of them filtering isn’t mandatory. And provided you restrict your aims precisely to those carefully worded factoids cherry-picked from Enex TestLab’s trial report.

And provided you never make a mistake.

Blocking a defined list of URLs [specific web addresses] such as the ACMA blacklist of Refused Classification material, even 100% of it, falls far short of “protecting” children from “inappropriate” material, to use the wording of Labor’s original cyber-safety policy.

Google’s index passed a trillion web pages a year and a half ago. ACMA’s manually compiled blacklist of a thousand-odd URLs reported by concerned citizens is a token drop in that ocean, a mere 0.0000001%.

ACMA told Senate Estimates that of the 1175 URLs on their blacklist on September 30, 54% were Refused Classification material, and only 33% of those related to child sexual abuse. The rest of the blacklist? 41% was X18+ material, and 5% was R18+ material without a “restricted access system” to prevent access by minors.

The same key problems with a filter-based approach, which Crikey has reported many times before, are confirmed by the Enex report.

If you go beyond the pre-defined ACMA blacklist to catch a wider range of content, the false positive rate — material blocked when it shouldn’t be — is still up to 3.4%. Enex’s examples include the incorrect blocking of “sperm whales” and “robin red breast”. In the industry, this is known as the Scunthorpe Problem.

Australia’s biggest telco, Telstra, wasn’t part of the official trial, but it conducted its own tests and discussed the results with Enex.

“Telstra found its filtering solution was not effective in the case of non-web based protocols such as instant messaging, peer-to-peer [file sharing like BitTorrent] or chat rooms. Enex confirms that this is also the case for all filters presented in the pilot.”

For all filters.

Telstra also reported that its filtering system could be overloaded if pages on heavy traffic sites like YouTube ended up on the blacklist. Every request for anything on YouTube would have to be routed to the secret filter box to see whether it was listed.

“This is also the case for all filters presented in the pilot,” reports Enex.

For all filters.

In any event, as the Enex report reminds us, “A technically competent user could, if they wished, circumvent the filtering technology.” In its own tests, Telstra didn’t even bother testing circumvention because they take it as given.

Bernard Keane thinks its just another bizarre example of Labor's urge to play wedge politics instead of governing responsibly - Net filtering won’t work, so what is Conroy up to? (I think he's underestimating their control freak impulses personally but he may have a point).
It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen as breathtakingly mendacious a policy announcement as yesterday’s declaration by Stephen Conroy that the government would introduce internet censorship.

It’s one thing to hold off on an announcement (which Conroy admitted he’d been sitting on since October) until the week before Christmas, when half the serious journalists in the country are on the other side of the world. That had its reward, with minimal, and decidedly thin, coverage of the announcement in the mainstream media today.

It’s quite another, even in these days of spin and media management, for a government minister to stand up and blatantly declare that black is white, and the government will be proceeding on the basis of that fact.

The internet “filtering” trial — perhaps we should drop the “filter” term, and call it what it is, censorship — was carefully structured by the government so that the filtering technology tested would meet low benchmarks and limited performance requirements. But it looks an awful lot like one of the reasons the government sat on the trial outcome for so long was because most of the trial results failed to meet even the minimal hurdles set up by the government.

On the basis of the trial report, even advocates of censorship could not support what Conroy has proposed, on the basis that it just doesn’t work.

That’s why Conroy, in charging ahead yesterday, had to tell a series of patent untruths. That filtering could be done with “100% accuracy”, when the trial saw up to 3.4% of web content (which means tens of million of web pages worldwide) wrongly blocked.

That the “wild claims” that censorship affects internet speed have been “put to bed” when the trial, despite trying to define the problem away by declaring “negligible” effect on usage speed as less than 10%, saw speed reductions of 30-40%.

Or the big lie, that filtering works, when several filters were bypassed more often than not (in one case, more than 90%), and the only filter that defeated nearly all efforts to circumvent it was the one with the 40%+ performance degradation. ...

The government’s real objective here is to shore up its family-friendly credentials. While the technologically literate may laugh at the trial outcome, and free speech advocates rail at censorship, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy know they’re a tiny minority of voters. This is all about giving ill-informed and often lazy parents, most of whom think that you can “stumble upon” p-rnography on the internet, the illusion that their children are safe, even as their kids circumvent the mechanism and go looking for s-xual material, which is what kids have always done. That parents should be active monitors of what their kids consume in the media is apparently old-fashioned thinking.

It isn’t about changing votes, so much as solidifying the government’s branding in the minds of mainstream voters as morally middle-of-the-road and supportive of families.

The other target is the coalition. Hitherto, particularly under Nick Minchin, the coalition has been hostile to the filtering scheme. But in the end, the coalition — which in the face of Green opposition will be necessary for Conroy’s Bill to pass the Senate — may struggle to oppose it. Blocking the Bill will enable the government to portray the coalition as out-of-touch with families and “mainstream values”. The value of censorship as a wedge far exceeds any losses that will accrue from a few IT nerds.

And if the technically competent, as the report says, can bypass these filters easily, what’s the issue? Geeks can have an uncensored internet, while your average suburban mum and dad are happy their kids won’t be clicking onto child abuse while doing their homework.

This is where this political stunt has serious consequences, and where the issue stops being about the ineffectiveness of filtering technology and about freedom of speech. Conroy insists that the censorship will only be about RC-material. “So for people wanting to campaign on the basis that we’re going to maybe slip political content in — we will never support that. And if someone proposes that I will be on the floor of Parliament arguing against it.”

Good to hear, minister, and I actually believe you. But you’re in effect asking us to trust not just you but every politician in the future. We’ve all seen the confected moral panics that the tabloid media, and politicians, are happy to use. Maybe it’s an unsavoury incident on a reality TV show. Maybe it’s a particularly foul-mouthed chef. The results are the same — the demand for politicians to censor, to block, to ban and restrict.

And that’s before we get to the moralisers and the demonisers. Maybe it’s euthanasia, accepted and legal in other countries but banned from discussion in Australia. Maybe it’s junk-food advertising, or alcohol advertising, another alleged source of vexation to parents.

The government’s censorship proposal locks in a universal mechanism that can be extended at will by politicians. Those who want to circumvent it will be able to, yes, but the bulk of the population will be subject to it, barely aware that it’s there — like they are barely aware that politicians have already banned the online expression of certain ideas such as euthanasia.

Do you trust politicians with such a mechanism?

GetUP has a campaign going against the "great firewall" - Tear down the great firewall.
Senator Conroy thinks he can sneak his plan to censor the internet in as Australia settles in for Christmas. As he considers the future of the scheme he needs to know that we'll be watching every step of the way.

At this crucial moment send Senator Conroy a quick message to let him know what you think of his plans to censor Australia's internet.

Crikey's Bernard Keane has an interesting essay on how to avoid getting a form letter response to your complaints to the government - and how to make them aware of the impact of clogged bandwidth - Bernard Keane’s guide to writing to Ministers.
If your first instinct upon hearing about the Rudd-Conroy plan to censor the internet is to email Stephen Conroy, your local member and Labor senators from your state to protest, wait up.

Or, in fact, do it anyway, then read this.

Let me explain some facts about writing to ministers, drawn from my sordid, blood-soaked and adventure-filled time as a public servant.

For a start, understand that few ministers if any read their correspondence. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that it’s not humanly possible to read even a fraction of the amount of emails, faxes and letters they get. So the chances of you directly influencing a Minister with your particularly brilliant insight into the issue are zip. Deal with it. Things don’t work like that.

Their staff will read correspondence, but only when considering a reply prepared by their Department.

And that is only a small proportion of the actual volume of correspondence received. Some is answered directly by bureaucrats. But much of it is simply binned. Don’t waste your time sending off a letter pre-prepared by some enthusiastic online advocacy group, where you sign at the bottom, endorsing the nicely-phrased sentiments at the top. They’re called “campaign” ministerials and are binned without being read or replied to (but please don’t tell the Friends of the ABC, who rely heavily on that technique, and haven’t had a letter to Canberra read for two decades).

Most non-campaign letters and emails - some departments still won’t reply to emails but demand your snail mail address, perhaps out of residual loyalty to Australia Post - are answered using what’s called “standard words” - a reply that ostensibly covers the issue raised but which normally says as little as possible. They say as little as possible because the mindset of bureaucrats and ministerial advisers is to keep as many options open as possible, except when there is a particular message that the Government wants to hammer.

Standard words are worked up by bureaucrats and edited and signed off by the Minister’s staff when they’re happy the words are risk-free or convey the desired message. In most departments, they are then loaded into electronic ministerial correspondence systems. This means a bureaucrat doesn’t even need to cut-and-paste into a Word document, merely tell the system to use a particular set of standard words under the name, address, salutation and opening paragraph, which have all been electronically entered already.

So if you send off an angry email or letter about net filtering, all you’ll likely get is an automatically-generated reply giving you the standard words on the issue. There’ll be minimal human involvement in the writing of it until it is stuffed into an envelope and dispatched.

You may not think it’s very democratic or consultative, but it’s a damn sight more efficient than processing correspondence by hand.

But if you can’t have any impact on policy, you can have an impact on the level of resources used to answer your letter. And that resource is the time of bureaucrats - the same bureaucrats who advise Conroy on policy, and implement his decisions. In most Departments, ministerial replies have to be approved by SES Band 1 officers before being sent to the Minister’s office, which means many replies consume the precious time both of senior bureaucrats and ministerial advisers. Many Departments also have formal agreements with Ministers that a certain proportion of correspondence will be answered within a certain period of time. If they’re not, more people have to be put into answering correspondence.

So if you want to consume as much of the Department of Broadband’s time as possible, here’s what to do. There’s not much you can do to avoid receiving a standard reply. But you don’t have to confine your missive to net filtering. Throw in some other topics. That means someone will have to put together a reply using standard words from different areas, which is a lot more complicated and can’t be done automatically. Ask about the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN). That means someone in the NBN area has to provide some words. Ask about Telstra. That’s another area entirely that has to provide input. If there’s three or four topics in your letter, bureaucrats will start arguing to avoid having to be responsible for it. The NBN area will tell the net filtering area it’s their responsibility to collate the response. The net filtering area will try to off-load it to the Telstra area. A Band 1 in one area will make changes and the whole lot will have to be re-approved by a Band 1 in another area.

Throw in something on Australia Post. Ask about something obscure. They may not have standard words at all and someone will have to actually prepare a proper reply.

You see, once your letter stops being a standard rant about filtering and requires actual work, the amount of time taken to prepare a response can snowball dramatically.

You can also use the Government’s system for allocating correspondence. As a start, always write to your MP first, even if it’s a Coalition MP. They will send the letter to Conroy and ask for a response to provide to you. MPs - even Opposition MPs - must get a response no matter what, as part of the civilities of politics, and it normally has to come from the Minister himself. But write to other Ministers as well. Ask Kim Carr what the impact of filtering will be on Australia’s IT industry. Ask Jenny Macklin what impact she thinks it will have on families. Ask Robert McClelland what the penalties will be for breaches of the mandatory filtering requirements. And ask Kevin Rudd how a Government that understands the need to bring Australia’s online infrastructure into the 21st century wants to drag it back to the 19th when it comes to content regulation.

All of those letters will have to go from the recipient’s department to Conroy’s Department for a response, then back to the originating Department, where they might add some additional material of their own. If you come up with a particularly complicated issue, the bureaucrats might start disagreeing with each other. Innovation bureaucrats might think Broadband’s net filter standard words doesn’t quite answer your question and want something else.

And don’t ask the same questions in different letters, otherwise they’ll bin them and tell you they understand you’ve separately written to your MP/another Minister/Kevin Rudd and here’s your job lot reply. Ask different questions and raise different issues.

And be pleasant. Apart from anything else, if there’s too much abuse in a letter, it gets thrown out (quite rightly). But these are decent, hard-working bureaucrats and regardless of what you think of Stephen Conroy, they deserve civility and respect.

Most of all, get your friends, acquaintances, family members, work colleagues, passing strangers, all writing. The bureaucratic capacity to handle ministerial correspondence is a lot like the net filters trialled earlier this year. At low levels of traffic they work OK, but once the traffic picks up, things start to choke up. That’s when Stephen Conroy and his office might start to notice that things are slowing down.


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