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SENG4921 - Lec 10 - Censorship, Internet content classification, ISP-level filtering and the interests of young people
23rd May 2009

The SENG4921 week 10 lecture was "Censorship, Internet content classification, ISP-level filtering and the interests of young people" by David Vaile. The Cyber Law Centre has some materials on the governments current censorship proposal at http://cyberlawcentre.org/censorship/.

This is not an article by me on the topic, rather my notes that I took from the lecture.

Lobbying Efforts


One of the main criticisms of the proposal is the lack of transparency. Vaile painted a nice picture of this. The classification board is where decisions about film ratings are made. Their decisions are public and they are subject to review. Under the proposal the decisions are secret. Consider this, if you have the job of classifying material and only the minister and PM know your decisions you are much more likely to make stricter decisions. If you classify something as blacklisted then people don't know its blacklisted so are less likely to complain that its blacklisted. Also if your boss (the minister) happens to be bias towards one end of the scale, then you would be more likely to make decisions on that end of the scale not necessarily where the line should be drawn. This may happen if there is no public scrutiny and no review process. Sure you cannot say for sure what an individual who has been assigned to classify sites will do, but this is the image I got from Vaile's talk.

Tag System

I first came across this when reading Lessig's Code 2.0. Instead of trying to filter the internet on the ISP level or running some kind of taxpayer funded attempt to classify the interent, put the onus on the web site owner. It would be very easy (and I'm sure such systems already exist) to add some extra HTML content at the top of an HTML page that would contain some metadata about the classification of the site. Perhaps MA if there is lots of violence references, or X for pornography. Then you could have laws in place that say if you distribute certain materials that contain, blah blah and blah, then you must adhere to these metadata tags.

This allows for the browser to filter pages based on their rating. So in school environments where the browser settings are locked down this could work. You could also (probably) do implement a filter at an ISP level (for say a school) that looks at the TCP packets and the HTML data for this rating metadata.

Sure there are many technical problems (particularly the case of you can't add this metadata so easily to non-HTML files) but the system sounds the best to me.


Vaile made a point about the dangers of over-legislating things. For example certain materials (which probably includes child pornography) is illegal to view, so if you happen to accidentally find this material on the internet and you want to report it to the police so they can track down the perpetrator, you are in a conundrum. If you tell the police about it, then you must have viewed the material yourself which is illegal so you may face criminal charges, hence you cannot report it.

This rebinds me of copyright infringement on the internet. You cannot know for sure what you are downloading until after it has downloaded (and even then you can how can you know if this material is illegal to copy or not?). Therefore how you can be charged for downloading copyrighted material is beyond me.

Opt In/Opt Out

What happens if the opt-in list is leaked. People can be criticised much more for opting in compared to opt out where you most likely won't be criticised.

Links (Vaile did not discuss)

Apparently not only does ACMA not like certain materials, they also don't like people posting links to materials that they don't like. But its not just ACMA, this link take down fiasco is a wider problem (think sites that host .torrent files).

So posting a link to a site on the ACMA blacklist will result in an $11,000 fine per day. What if you post the URL but with no <a href... tag? What if you encrypt the URL? What if you encrypt the URL and post the decryption key on a different domain? What if you post a link to a page that contains a link to a page on the blacklist? How many hops will ensure you don't get threats of massive fines? The internet has so many links I'm sure that somehow some .gov.au web site links to an other web site which in turn links to another web site ....... which in turn links to a site on the ACMA blacklist (I haven't the time to find this path though). Is it illegal to tell someone the street address of someone who may be able to provide you with illegal drugs?

The other problem is we are supposed to not post links to certain sites, but ACMA won't publish that list of sites that we cannot post to? So we must instead check our mail every single day in case today is the day that ACMA tells us that we are providing a link and must remove it immediately?

Tags: politics, seng4921.