The internet can't be censored - governments shouldn't try
The Australian government's National Filter Scheme, an A$84.8m (£34.4m) initiative promoting the use of censorware in that country, recently suffered a collision with reality when a teenager reportedly immediately cracked some offered PC software. Although some media reports made it sound as if the government itself had developed the censorware, those millions simply represented roughly a country-wide site licence for several commercial censorware products. There's a similarity here to the difficulties concerning enforcing digital restrictions on music or movies. If someone has access to a computer, they can try to disable whatever software is attempting to interfere with their ability to use the machine. And one person's discovery of a solution may then quickly be used by others. It's important to understand that the word "filtering" can lead people to misframe the issues. Talk of "filters" brings up mental images of getting rid of bad substances or toxic material, whereas what is really under discussion is control of people. Calling it "censorware" has the advantage of clarity. While it was an appealing David v Goliath storyline to have an underdog defeating the weight of government repression, the full situation is considerably more tawdry. Many weaknesses of censorware have long been known. But governments end up giving money to these companies for the political benefits of being able to Do Something About The Problem (no matter the flaws). The censorware companies receive what are in effect subsidies, and the government gets a set of talking points in return. Neither wants to be burdened with living up to their promises. One danger is that such embarrassments affecting local PC programs will add impetus to factions within the Australian government who want to mandate that ISPs censor net connections nationwide. And we're certainly seeing how censorship can be a slippery slope. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) blacklist of websites covers child pornography, bestiality, excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use. As part of its overall NetAlert plan, Australia is having the ACMA and police investigate having this blacklist "include for example terrorism and cybercrime sites upon prescription by the Attorney-General" (minister.dcita.gov.au). Some politicians have even proposed adding pro-anorexia sites to the blacklist, due to their supposed deleterious promotion of eating disorders. Since such blacklists are secret, sites could be added without any public discussion, and attempts to expose the blacklist are often a dangerous legal risk. Inversely, any attempt at effectively keeping people from reading prohibited sites must perforce ban not only those sites themselves, but a whole range of useful third-party service sites that allow readers to obtain censored web pages through that other site. Such sites include those devoted to protecting privacy and anonymity, language translators, even testing various technical web page coding standards (sethf.com). Furthermore, software developed with the idea of helping citizens in dictatorships to get material about democracy and human rights works just as well, perhaps even better, in helping anyone who is seeking sexual material (and arguably the latter group is more motivated and certainly it's more numerous). In fact, the focus on social networks which is part of the Psiphon anti-censorship project makes it a perfect fit for a group of teens where even one member has an uncensored connection. We're seeing another experiment in finding out if the internet can indeed be censored. This will play out for many years with many governments. People cannot simply proclaim that information they favour will be freely available while that they disfavour can be forbidden. The technical methods of control are independent of the social values regarding which content is to be suppressed. This is a problem of public policy that will not go away. No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.