Saturday, November 8, 2008

Internet Censorship - Australia says 'WTF, no way!'.

Those who have known me for a long time have known of my long-time hatred of internet censorship - ever since 1998, in fact, I've researched and opposed internet censorship at every turn. Not based on performance or anything like that - based purely on the principle of freedoms of speech and information.

I've mellowed since then. There are things that should be censored. I fail to see any benefit in allowing, for example, child pornography and bestiality to be shown. I don't exactly think I'm alone in my revulsion.
In short, there is a definite line that should not be crossed. We may not know where that line is, but we can tell when something has unquestionably leapt over it.

As I make no attempts to hide, I'm an Orthodox Christian, and that does govern a lot of my own thoughts and actions; I also choose to live in a liberal democratic society, the upshot of this is that I do not believe that government should legislate for all morality and believe that everyone is accountable for their own actions (and, FWIW, I would be shocked if someone could come up with evidence that Orthodox theology says anything else).

So, there is one problem - where is the line to be drawn. I would draw it where over 90% of the Australian population agrees that a thing is wrong. Gonna be hard to achieve that kind of consensus? Damn right, and that's the way it should be. Our constitution, to function, necessitates our freedom of speech (termed 'implied rights'), and that's the way it should be, and that's the kind of freedom we need to have to gain knowledge to elect good leaders - never mind take part in the world and resurrect the economy.

That doesn't take care of the second problem: how is the line to be drawn. Well, there's really no good answers. But, no computer program can do it. None. All have false negatives and false positives at unacceptable levels (even taking aside the certainty of decreased performance).
Rather: employ someone to basically add sites to a filter. A moral philosopher, a trained ethicist - someone with a good head on their shoulders for that 90% consensus - whose job it is to manually go through and add sites to the blacklist.

These are sites constructed by humans, and - if they are to be blocked - they deserve to be blocked by humans.

The third problem of censorship is, of course, performance. Australian internet performance is currently sub-par, at best. We want to slow it down further? Sorry, that's just dumb.

(more travelblogging coming soon)


Lucas said...

c'mon, you'd know i'd comment on this.

They're all fair points, but even for stuff like kiddy porn and bestiality, attempts to block anything at all still are, and will always be, futile.

1. For a manual method, as soon as you find and block one thing, another 4 will be up somewhere else in the world. That's just the way it is.
2. What about legitimate sites that have been compromised/hijacked by the kiddy-porn publishers? A lot of stuff gets put on other people's websites without them even knowing about it, surely 'blocking' a whole website in that scenario is a little severe.
3. How do you block the bad material? By the URL? By the IP address?

For the former, URLs can be easily changed. For the latter, much hosting around the world comprises of many websites residing on a single server; so if you block by IP address, you run the risk of blocking hundreds of legitimate websites because of a single foul one.

Whichever way you look at it, it just isn't practical to filter/block/censor illegal or inappropriate material.

For the kiddy porn stuff, the money is better spent on funding the Australian Federal Police, Interpol and other similar government organisations that actively search for, track, hunt down, arrest and prosecute the sick bastards.

You will always be fighting a losing battle trying to censor/block that material. And anyway, how much child porn or bestiality has the average internet user just stumbled upon anyway???


Pistevo said...

1. Didn't say it would be perfect. My goal is to eliminate false-positives (and say 'this is unacceptable behaviour from one of our citizens'). I know more than most how unutterably bad computer-based censorship is in practise.
2. People who allow their websites to be hacked (through action or neglect) need to have better security, and the undoubted pain in the gluts that would be getting a url off the black list should bring that home.
3. By URL. Like I said, no false positives.

I'm unconvinced that hiring a philosopher to google websites, day in day out, and add them to a blacklist (at /most/, $55,000) would be more expensive than going after the various persons of interest, considering that I'd put money on them being in other countries (seriously, who of any note is in Australia?).

Side issue: the average internet user - if there is such a thing - is underage himself.

The point is not that it's a losing battle. Winning or losing isn't the point. We haven't won the war on drugs, it's not as if anyone's calling that one to a close. I'm aware that most censorship is about pitting technical genius against the collective sex drive of all teenagers online.
But, this isn't about moralisms or save the children stuff (or even if Joe the Plumber has stumbled across such sites - which is not-unheard of, albeit peripheral): this is about what it is to be an acceptable person to take part in society.

Lucas said...

for 2: you could hire people for hundreds of thousands of dollars to do security and a website will still get hacked by a determined hacker. No security in IT is ever absolute, and making Joe the Plumbers online plumbing business go under because of a missing line of code that compromises security isn't just.

I really do think it is a matter of winning or losing. Censoring something manually is not like destroying a shipment of drugs in your analogy of the war on drugs.

If you block/blacklist a site, and it takes them 5 minutes relocate to another domain or server, where's the even minor victory in that?

You haven't blocked/censored their material, all you've done is given them a really minor inconvenience in having to find somewhere else to put it, and the material is only unavailable for as little as 5 minutes.

Prevention and prosecution is still your best bet. The AFP work with interpol and other government organisations to hunt these guys down regardless of what country they reside in.

The EU, US, and other countries cooperate really well to hunt these guys down: a good example was this case earlier this year where German police reverse-engineered altered images, posted it on interpol, for a Canadian man to be identified living in South Korea, and arrested by Thai authorities after he fled there.

The money is better spent on stuff like that than minorly inconveniencing the perpetrators, which is ultimately futile anyway.

You say it's about being an acceptable person to take part in society. That's true, but sometimes you've got to just trust the vast majority that are ok, and prosecute the vast minority that aren't. Holding everybody's hands in walking them down the information superhighway is a huge waste of time, effort, and money.

Pistevo said...

Joe the Plumber's business being temporarily inconvenienced is a small price to pay. It's not like it's difficult to take a site off a blacklist.

I doubt that such websites would bother relocating. What's the proportion of people who are into kiddy/bestiality, 0.1% or less? In Australia, assuming that they all have internet, that's <22,000. Not enough for most to care about (USA block, different story...but USA - or significant - we are not).

I don't oppose prevention/prosecution. Obviously the best deterrant to the websites at all is to be rid of all people involved or aiding the distribution.

But, my argument isn't based on best prevention. If my argument were based on morality (which most pro-censors are) or handholding on the information superhighway then, well, I'd need a different argument, because censorship ontologically cannot work to support good morals (that's the job of parenting and, arguably [although I'd argue against], schools). Rather, my argument is about the minimum standard of being a part of society.

All this said: I am not in favour of any forms of censorship that have been put in place or that have been politically suggested in any Western country. False positives are inexcusable and are indicative of flaws in both the practical side of that censorship and, most likely, the theoretical. What I have outlined is the most that I would support.