foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Censorship in New Zealand: Wide-spread public brain-wash

, posted: 16-Jul-2009 12:11

A lot has been written about the coming age of Internet censorship in New Zealand. What I find disturbing in this debate is that many in the public are agreeing that 'something should be done' against child-porn and focus on the budget or the technical details of the implementation, and thus completely miss the bigger picture.

I responded to an article in The Standard. I have replicated, slightly edited and extended that comment here.

We have to remember that any possibility to filter web-pages and the Internet in general - no matter what the initial good intention may have been - opens the door to abuse and further spreading of censorship.

Remember, this debate should not at all be about whether child-porn is good or bad. A similar debate, similarly distracted, currently takes place in other countries as well and it all boils down to the same:
  • You can't just stumble across child-porn on the Internet. As has been mentioned many times already, these sites are traded by word of mouth and are mostly closed and password protected. Therefore, blocking access to these sites does not do anything to prevent normal people or even children from seeing child-porn, since they wouldn't see it anyway. In 15 years of heavy Internet use, which has led me to many dark corners of this network, I have not once stumbled across child-porn. Not once!
  • It is still quite easy to overcome even this kind of filtering attempt. Thus, those who really want child-porn can still get it with very little effort. That's what transparent proxies are for. Therefore, this kind of filtering does not work in really preventing access to these sites for those intent on really seeing it.
  • If the DIA or whoever is in power really would want to stop the child-porn that's out on the Internet they would only have to do one very simple thing: Call the hoster on which these images are stored and ask them to shut down the account. Believe it or not, but that works remarkably well: Child-porn is illegal in almost all countries. The hosting companies (no matter in which country) often have no idea what someone has stored in an account on one of their servers. Therefore, if they find out about it, they don't want to have anything to do with it and will very quickly respond by shutting it down. This was tested with some of those leaked child-porn lists in other countries that use child-porn as a reason to start filtering. But instead of very effectively removing this account from the Internet with a simple phone call or email, the government instead prefers to put a filtering infrastructure in place. They know where the sites are, but chose to do nothing...
Now consider all of this: It doesn't really stop child-porn, and a much more simple low-tech approach to getting rid of it is available, but not used. Why is this?

Because child-porn is used (here and in other countries) just as a flimsy alibi to install a ubiquitous government controlled censorship infrastructure. Think about the children! That is the killer-argument with which these attempts are justified and the public is pacified. As a commenter on Slashdot very succinctly said when they discussed the development in New Zealand: "Where would your government be without childporn? If it didn't exist, the government would surely invent it."

As long as we are keeping ourselves pre-occupied by talking about the technical merits of the system, or waste our time by discussing minutiae in the definition of the word 'filter', or talk about how in principle we should agree to this since nobody likes child-porn, or talk about the budget for this. we are just distracting ourselves from the real issue and are playing into the hands of those who want to make censorship widely accepted.

Once the technical possibility is there, the calls to use it for other purposes will start. There will be lobbying by all sorts of groups (some openly, some secretly) to block more and more content. Remember the list is secret, so you never know what is going to be blocked. Already happens in other countries, so why should it be different here? How about 'killer games'? Let's block that as well. How about 'sites critical to the filtering effort'? Let's block that, too. How about (insert controversial subject you care about here)? Let's block that as well.

Fight the beginnings, is all I can say. By focusing on what the majority finds to be repulsive a government can get the majority to go along with any scheme, no matter how many of our freedoms are taken away in the process. That's how it always starts. Let's learn from history. People don't really change and history always repeats itself. Let's not walk into this asleep and with eyes wide shut.

But isn't this type of material alrady censored in other media already? Sure it is! Any kind of censorship is to be examined very, very critically. The problem with the Internet is that censorship here affects one of the most revolutionary communication media in the world, where for the first time ever, an ordinary person can publish their opinion to the world with little effort. This was never there before. This is widely out of control of any government, as it should be. And when the masses are not under the government's control in the way they can communicate and share ideas and opinions then governments feel very uncomfortable. They can't have that.

As a little additional crimp in the story, consider that the suggested technology doesn't always have to block your access. It can be used to switch on transparent monitoring of any accesses to specific addresses or web-sites (by letting the DIA server work as a transparent proxy), and even for the modification of the content that is returned to the user, without the user ever knowing what happend! I should know, since I have worked on transparent and content-modifying proxies in the past.

  • This is not about the budget.
  • This not about the technical issues behind the implementation.
  • This is not about whether child-porn is good or bad
Instead, it is about control over what we can see and say on the Internet, it is about the establishment of a wide-spread and arbitrarily usable censorship infrastructure, which once in place, can be used for anything that those who control it see fit.

Do you want that?

Other related posts:
Blackout to demonstrate against S92A
Section 92A (three strikes law) is not a New Zealand novelty
A time when IE is NOT used by most people? Don't bet against this trend when designing a site

Comment by nzsouthernman, on 16-Jul-2009 14:21

Very well put. The thought of government controlled secretive filtering terrorfies me.

You are right on the money - the 'think of the children' line is a smokescreen to cloud Joe Public's thinking while the govt slips something like this through.

I'd like to know a) which ISP's are planning to *NOT* opt-in to this filtering and b) how soon can they sign me up?

Comment by br3nda, on 16-Jul-2009 20:07

I have stumbled across child porn.

I installed an anonymiser http client - an SSL-ed p2p thing that proxies through other people - and then went to look further inside to see what I was proxying for other anonymous users.

It was child rape images.

The sad part is, this DIA filter will do nothing to stop such things. They wouldn't pass through the ISPS' transparent proxy or DIA's filter.

DIA cannot and should never be able to see your web browser traffic when logging into your internet banking - and that's the same simple technology that is used (albeit with some p2p ontop) to enable the child porn trading i stumbled on.

It is unfortunate because the valid uses includes those in Iran or China trying to get past their government's own censorship.

(i need stronger word than unfortunate).

Comment by br3nda, on 16-Jul-2009 20:10

p.s. I hate transparent proxies - I work with port 80 technology (web services, billing gateways, proxies) so when i connect to an IP on port 80 i want the packets i send to go to the IP i thought I was connecting to.

I can't work when they reroute it somewhere else.

I can't verify that my webserver is actually listening correctly on port 80 if every connection attempt to any 80 results in a connection, even though my webserver is connection refused.

Author's note by foobar, on 17-Jul-2009 07:42

@br3nda: I think you can't call your experience 'stumbling across child porn'. When I talk about 'stumblinig', I mean normal web-browsing, use of search engines, etc. You actually examined traffic that was routed through you because of your participation in an anonymization service.

Nevertheless, this just goes to illustrate that the people that are supposed to be hit by this filter initiative already are very well aware of how to get around it already.

Comment by Dratsab, on 17-Jul-2009 10:15

Very well written Foobar.

like yourself, I've been traversing the internet (sometimes very aimlessly) for 15+ years and have thankfully never, ever stumbled across child porn.

However, in beauracratic circles, common sense never prevails.  No matter what the realities are, this technology will be implemented a lot more widely than it currently is.

What I don't understand is why the ISP's have such huge buy-in, when they, of all people, should know what a waste of time it is.

Comment by Anonymous, on 17-Jul-2009 17:36

Very well written analysis. Another interesting question: what happens when the situation changes? Consider:

1) A judge issues a court order to censor any website mentioning a high-profile defendant (e.g. David Bain) to avoid influencing a trial. What does the DIA do then?

2) The next MMP election ends with United Future or a similar minor party holding the "balance of power", and decide that hugely expanded Internet filtering would be a rather nice bargaining chip to form a government.

3) The list expands by natural means. Bestiality is an obvious choice, then S&M, then gay porn, then straight porn, then anonymiser/proxy servers...

Comment by Mark, on 19-Jul-2009 01:06

It is always like that, they start with less questionable subjects, next thing you know, any thing that govt and those old folks from Tauranga find objectionable will be banned, be it a gay site ,communist platform, or nude photography. Also the govt argument is exactly the same as mass medication by folic acid.Why don't let users decide for themselves?

One would hope NZ ISPs stand up and stop this first step.

Comment by Stephen, on 19-Jul-2009 18:07

"What I don't understand is why the ISP's have such huge buy-in"

Oh, that's easy. Having to explain why your company doesn't want to block child porn is going to be a PR nightmare.

Comment by Paul, on 4-Sep-2009 14:25

I work primarily as a network support technician and must attend to security issues as well. In every case where we have had to deal with network policy violations concerning porn, the user has always found a way to circumvent the security controls.

Additionally, I have spent some time working with the live Linux Incognito distro to determine how we might at least be able to identify the use of this tool, (and others), on our network. I realize the average user would likely not use nor be aware of such things. However, it is certainly one way to stumble onto child porn.

I would like to see better methods to control network usages however, I certainly am opposed to government censorship. We have enough government intrusions in America as it is. More to come with the current administration, I would imagine. Non-the-less, personal liberty is far more preferable than anything "Big Brother" could ever conjure up.

foobar's profile

New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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