14 March 2010

Democracy fail

Countries like China, Iran and others with totalitarian regimes are routinely castigated in the Western press for the limits they place on free speech, including on the internet. So the next target for staunch defenders of democracy should be... us?

According to Tech Liberty NZ, the Department of Internal Affairs (maybe that should be Infernal Affairs) has confirmed that an internet filter has gone live as of 1 February 2010. Two ISPs -- Watchdog and Maxnet -- have signed up, and Telecom, Vodafone and Telstra Clear have indicated that they will also sign up for it. Slingshot and Natcom have said they will not sign up. Orcon has said they probably won't.

The stated intention of the internet filter is to block access to child sex abuse images, it'll be hard for the government to resist the temptation to spread the filter's reach into other areas (political, social, economic, etc.). Especially since the list of sites blocked by the filter is secret: you're not allowed to know what's being blocked.

Now, stopping child sex abuse images is a laudable goal. I've always loathed the people who make and traffic in this stuff (especially now that I'm a father). But is this filter going to stop it?


First of all, stopping someone from viewing this filth won't stop the production of it, which should be the more urgent goal of law enforcement. To produce a child sex abuse image (I hate the term 'kiddie porn'), a child has to be abused. That'll happen whether anybody downstream views the image or not. So catching and punishing the people who make the images should be a priority.

Secondly, the filter won't stop peer-to-peer file sharing, which is apparently how most child sex abuse images are shared.

Third, anyone determined enough will be able to route around the filter, making it useless.

This filter intrudes on your right to privacy and freedom from search. A police officer can't just stop you in the street and search you, they have to have probable cause: a justified reason to execute the search that will hold up in court. To search your house, the police have to go before a judge, explain why they think they need to search your house, and get a warrant before they knock on your door. To listen to your phone conversations, they likewise need a warrant. But your internet traffic? With this filter, where you browse, what you read and watch is fair game. Regardless of whether you're going to a banned site or not, if the website you are visiting happens to be hosted by the same web server as a banned site, your traffic will go via DIA's servers.

Somebody's going to rattle off the line, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about." Bullshit. We have a presumption of innocence in this country (innocent until proven guilty). A filter assumes you're guilty until it decides you're innocent.

This filter was implemented because DIA decided that it was allowed to under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. This act mentions the internet. Once. In the definition of "service provider" (which itself is only mentioned one other time). It is definitely worrying that a government department can arbitrarily set up a censorship regime without political oversight: an unelected bureaucrat can decide what you can and cannot view, and not tell you until after you've potentially incriminated yourself.

Ben Franklin once said, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security." This filter is an assault on our liberties, and should be stopped as undemocratic. Let us decide for ourselves what we can watch and read.

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