3 January 2008

Government's plan to censor the Internet will be a waste of money

The Australian government's plans to censor the Internet by blocking access to selected websites will achieve little except increase the costs of Internet services while degrading performance. Anyone with a basic understanding of how the Internet is constructed will tell you that any attempt to restrict users' access to sites across the globe will fail. The Internet owes its remarkable success to its decentralisation, open architecture and adaptiveness, and for these reasons it is futile to attempt to regulate users' access to data that is normally accessible by the general public.

The cliché "it is better than doing nothing" does not justify this dumb policy, because the time and money spent implementing the filter can be put to better use in other approaches to combating child pornography, such as law enforcement, where the perpetrators are actually identified and prosecuted, not ignored (of course, this would mean more money would have to come out of the government's own budget, rather than that of ISPs).

So, how easy would it be to circumvent the Internet filter? Here is one way it can be done in two simple steps:

  1. Browse to an anonymous public web proxy hosted overseas, such as Vtunnel.
  2. Enter the URL of the desired site and click Begin browsing.

Some will argue that this loophole can be overcome by simply blacklisting anonymous web proxies, but this is just one method and there are countless other ways that Internet filters can be circumvented, such as VPN, SSH and various other SSL-based tunnelling methods, as well as freely available technologies developed solely for this purpose. Furthermore, if anonymous web proxies were blacklisted, Australian Internet users would justifiably be outraged because it would be encroaching upon their basic right to online privacy, which unfortunately does not exist when traffic is unencrypted.

Most of the individuals who are determined to obtain or distribute child pornography via the Internet would be well aware of the severe penalties and shame for their crimes and would already be adopting measures to avoid detection, making it difficult to maintain up-to-date lists of sites providing such material. We do not know how much of this material is downloaded via server-based systems. Users obtaining child pornography through decentralised file sharing networks will be totally unaffected by filters that only target dedicated servers.

The intentions might be good (we should hope so), but the end does not justify the means, especially when the end will not be achieved.