Why Censorship on the Net is a bad idea

Most arguments about censorship on the net are very emotive, and I fully agree with the freedom of speech concerns, but in this article we are going to focus on the technical and political issues associated with attempting to censor the net.

No-one can be unaware of the level to which China censor their citizens net access, but even with their past experience and expertise, they continue to run into issues.

Recently China's government dictated that all new PC's should ship with a program called Green Dam installed and enabled. This has led to a number of issues, including Copyright concerns, and good old fashioned technical failures.

More than this, determined users can bypass many of the restrictions, the Great Firewall Of China has been in place for quite some time, but is still ineffective enough to warrant the government mandating the use of 'Green Dam.'

How much has the Chinese Government spent researching and implementing these flawed technologies? We will probably never know, but it's likely to be no small amount. The most effective censorship in China has proven to be the fear that the Government may not like what you are up to.

Is that a state any of us want to live in? And how does it deter those who want information, regardless of the risk? The simple answer is that it doesn't.

Worse than that, even if China's current implementation worked as intended, they would still have an endless task keeping it up to date. No-one's quite sure how many new sites pop up onto the net on a daily basis, but if even 5% of these are pages the Government don't want people seeing, their financial commitments increase.

Given the constraints of current technology, and a desire to keep some of the filtering transparent, it is important to regularly confirm that any filtered URL's are still valid. Otherwise you end up with a database of URL's that no longer exist, and every time a web request is made, it'll still be compared against this address. Both the storage and the processing overhead increase as you add more rules to your blacklist.

The Australian Government have run into similar issues with their trials of the Great Australian Firewall, not only was their blacklist leaked, but there were a number of URL's on there for pretty run of the mill sites. Trying to implement a solution to block illegal content is one thing, but a political nightmare soon ensues if it is revealed that you have also blocked legitimate sites (including a dentists website!)

The same nightmare was felt by the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, they had an image on WikiPedia reported to them, and considered that it could possibly be considered to be Child Porn. Without consulting a court (there's nothing that says they have to), they added to referencing page to their blacklist. You can still buy the album, containing the self same image in HMV, and thousands of people were blocked from WikiPedia's information on it. Worse, because of the technical means used to enforce the block, WikiPedia were unable to audit page edits, and so had to block the entire IP range.

Britain is now trying to export an IWF style organisation to Europe, and whilst the idea of censoring Child Porn is fantastic, it is also idealistic. The reality is that it will only stop the casual browser from stumbling onto known sites. It will not prevent determined browsers, or prevent any browsers from stumbling onto sites that the IWF do not know about.

If the money used to fund the IWF could instead be used across to Europe to locate and prosecute the publishers of this content, it is likely a far greater effect could be achieved.