Opinion: Why national Internet filters are pointless

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Opinion: Why national Internet filters are pointless

It seems that the world plus dog is falling over itself to filter the World Wide Web in a desperate bid to protect children from things they can handle on their own.

Australia, Germany and other so called free societies are signing up for mandatory filtering schemes.

The technology involved in such screening is similar to that tried more or less successfully in China and some of the more extreme religiously oriented countries.

It involves a list of sites that the government does not want its citizens see being blocked at the ISP.

Since this list requires much updating, the filtering software has a list of dodgy words that it does not like and will block pages containing those too.

Such country's creeds are against the individual and more in favour of state or religious stability being considered more important.

So they will spend a lot of money and resources monitoring and checking. Otherwise they will find their citizens will wake up and work out they really don't want a government like that.

Western nations which have been advocating filtering have done so solely on the basis that they are protecting kiddies from seeing things they shouldn't.

When they tend to mention the fact that they would like 'illegal sites' blocked they usually talk about it with hushed breath or mention the handy cover-all of terrorism.

However there is a fear that public servants will decide what is illegal and what information the great unwashed should see.

Censorship is always about maintaining the status quo and keeping people ignorant if that is threatened.

Tony Blair would have loved to stick the phrase 'weapons of mass destruction' on any UK block list, for example.

But evidence from Australia seems to indicate that sticking such filtering at the ISP level either breaks the internet or causes the whole thing to slow down to the days of dial-up modems.

Free speech issues are abstract but if you can't get your emails because the government is checking that you are not accessing pr0n then the Internet is in trouble.

This leads to another problem. Algorithms that are 99.999 per cent accurate in identifying 'bad' material might be technologically obtainable.

But with the huge numbers of Web pages going up every day you are still going to get a large number of false positives.

China has found that some of its more technology savvy minions have worked ways around its Great Fire Wall of China.

In the West, where the motivation towards censorship is not as fanatical, we suspect any filtering system will be cracked within minutes. Proxy servers, encryption and tunnelling are all tools that can and will be used.

Finally it will not actually stop paedophiles. The serious 'kiddie fiddler' Internet rings are extremely secure encrypted operations. Filtering won't even see the material they are shifting.

Yesterday the Italian press was full of a story about Cathgoogle.com which is a search engine set up by father Fortunato Di Noto, founder priest of Meter who has been fighting kiddie pr0n for years.

Cathgoogle.com was supposed to be a 'religiously correct' search engine with search words like 'sex', 'contraception', 'drugs' and 'abortion' not generating hits.

However on a slow news day rainnews24 hacks played around at the site and searched their way to all sorts of sites that would not have been approved of by the Pope. This led to a somewhat unfair claim that paedophiles and pornographers have 'infiltrated' Cathoogle.com.

There are companies out there which have been blocking staff access to some sites for years.

Firms find that employees will use a variety of high-tech and low tech ways of getting around the filters.

Simple techniques such as going through a site such as Babelfish with the translation set to English is surprisingly effective as is looking at the blocked site through Google cache.

That is even before staff start playing with proxy servicers.

If a company with a limited Internet access point and a small number of users can't stop staff from going where they like, what chance does a government, with millions of users, and a world load of Internet access points have?

Finally there will be the question of how much governments want to spend on web filtering.

Some think it will only be a matter of a few hundred million and it will be sorted. China has spent a fortune and even that has been circumvented.

If the governments of Germany and Australia are prepared to keep paying for an unpopular system that will not do anything, in the middle of a recession, then they deserve to find out how pointless that is.
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