17 December 2009

Mandatory ISP-level filtering: issue of feasibility or freedom of speech?

Most disagreements I've had on the issue of mandatory ISP-level filtering are not on whether it is bad policy, but the reasons why it is bad policy. The community's concerns fall into two categories:

  • Social: objections to government regulation of access to online content.
  • Technical: foreseen technical challenges that ISP-level filtering creates, such as preventing circumvention and a reduction in network performance.

Engineers will tell you that ISP-level filtering simply doesn't work, which might appear to contradict the fears that people have about the government being able to block access to content to further its own political interests. The social and technical arguments at first may appear to disagree with each other, but they are closely related and can be even seen as one and the same issue being debated from different angles.

The success of the Internet has been built on its open, decentralised and robust design that has enabled its rapid expansion and information to quickly and reliably flow from one host on the network to any other host located anywhere on the globe. Attempting to regulate communications requires intervention in the fundamental underlying workings of the Internet and inevitably leads to undesirable results. Whether you view this from a social or technical perspective, the policy undermines the strengths of the Internet that have allowed it to transform the way we communicate.

Proponents of Internet censorship sometimes compare the Internet to TV in the censorship debate—programs are censored on free-to-air television, so why should the Internet be treated any differently? The difference is that free-to-air programs are delivered over a broadcast medium and communication occurs in only one direction between the station and the public. When programs are censored, the content is removed at the source. Censorship on the Internet via ISP-level filtering is achieved by blocking communication between hosts connected to the Internet, not removing the content at the source, and has an adverse impact on all communication that takes place between Internet users.

No comments: