Great Firewall Maybe Not So Great

Australia has announced plans to implement mandatory content filtering by its internet service providers for certain kinds of web content, essentially attempting to block all Australian internet users from these categories of sites.  (See Yahoo article here)  China had attempted this sort of thing earlier in 2009, but placed its plans on hold.  These plans had apparently included requiring computer makers that sold computers in China to install filtering software on the computer that would limit user access to certain “objectionable” web sites.

I suspect that one day, the older internet users among us will look back with nostalgia at the days when we could freely look at bestiality, hardcore violence, and sites on freeing Tibet from Chinese rule.  Sadly, today’s debate in Australia seems to be framed as a conflict between the mainstream, ordinary folk against the scum of the earth that produce child porn and other nastiness.  And why would anybody want child porn sites to be available to anyone?  The problem is always in how we define the things to be filtered.  In Australia’s plan, the non-government entity responsible for doing the filtering would receive complaints from the public about a site, and then the entity would filter the site for all.  So, I could claim that is actually a child pornography site and file a complaint.  Hopefully, the entity that reviews these complaints would have a reasonable process to filter the wheat from the chaff, and not automatically add whatever site is complained of to the filter list.

I would also hope there would be some process to be unlisted from the filter with some due process protections if you get an adverse decision by the filtering entity.  But, as you can imagine, this only increases the overall cost of the filtering system, which is passed on to Australian taxpayers, who could probably avoid going to such dirty sites by not clicking on them in the first place, hence saving all a significant amount of time and cost to civil liberties.

I’m not a fatalist in saying, from the start, that this plan is doomed to failure.  Enough talented people put into a room can come up with a workable and effective solution to this problem.  Instead, I think this internet filter concept was created by a group of people with a solution looking for a problem to solve that, so far, does not exist but in the minds of some easily offended by the internet.  In my opinion, public monies would be better spent stopping phishing attacks and similar malicious web sites, and enforcing the existing laws that criminalize the wholesale theft of identity and credit card information that occurs today on the internet.

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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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