Republished: Censorship on the Net

This article was originally published on in May 2009

Now we all know that countries such as China intercept and filter all Internet connections within their country. It cannot have escaped the attention of many that Australia has recently been testing a firewall (with some interesting revelations on Wikileaks.) There have been suggestions that the Germans tried to censor Wikileaks, although the disconnection of the site later turned out to be related to unpaid bills.

How many are aware however of Censorship in our own country? It exists, as was highlighted when a numebr of ISP's tried to censor a Wikipedia page at the demand of the Internet Watch Foundation. The page was blocked because of an image that was possibly illegal under Child Protection laws. The image in question related to the cover art of a rather famous album. It was hugely contraversial when it was first released, but was allowed through the net. At some point this image was highlighted to the IWF and they asked all participating ISP's to add  the image to a blocklist. The result of this was that the ISP's forced their customers connections through a proxy in order to enact the filter. Wikipedia were unable to selectively block users, and so felt they had to block the IP of the proxy server.

The result was that a substantial proportion of the UK was blocked from editing Wikipedia pages, and their Internet Connections had been filtered. All at the request of the IWF. A request stemming not from a court judgement but from the view that the image could possibly breach UK Law.

There is no doubt that the IWF means well, some would argue that censorship does not combat the actual issue of Child Abuse, but the fact remains that their motives seem to be pure. They simply need to act with a little more discretion in these matters!

There is a lot of censorship on UK Internet Connections, all in the name of protecting the children. The problem arises when any agency (or ISP for that matter) is over zealous in its filtering policies. The IWF's blocking of WikiPedia is a very good example of this.

I'm writing this article largely because the matter was brought to the front of my mind whilst running some security tests on my home network. I had connected to the Internet on my laptop by dialling out on my Mobile Phone. I then ran nmap to see which (if any) ports were open. Bizzarely, every port between 25 and 150 showed as being open, with a listening daemon.

On a network that is pretty well locked down, this is both bizzare and concerning.

However, as it turns out, none of these ports are open. None of the daemons are running on the firewall. A quick traceroute showed that my connection was being routed through a transparent proxy. Nmap thought the connection had terminated at the final destination, when actually it had terminated at the cellcos server.

Now most of the mobile providers run Censorship on their networks. I presume the others work in a similar way to T-Mobile, so here's the procedure for removing the censorship (the legal method). If you are a Contract customer, you can log into the T-mobile webpage, and remove the censorship by entering your credit card details.
You can also have the censorship removed in the same manner as Pay as You Go Customers

Pay as you Go Customers can either phone customer services, and provide their credit card details, or can go into any T-Mobile store with proof of age.

Now this is fantastic if you have a credit card, you can remove it quite quickly. If you don't then it is a lot of hassle.

Personally, I've never got as far as a T-Mobile store. I've little desire to watch 'Adult Content' over such a low speed link, and I'm not much of a gambler.

The problem is, it would appear that this censorship interferes with other operations (such as my nmap scan). Why should I have to travel out of my way to a T-Mobile branch just to remove this filtering (which may not even resolve the issue). Just because I don't have a credit card? I thought that was a good thing?

Censorship is usually justified with positive impact. 'We are implementing censorship in order to prevent children from seeing pornography', No-one can argue with that, otherwise suggestions will be made about that persons lack of desire to protect children.

The problem is that the censorship usually has further reaching effects, having my nmap scan interfered with was inconvenient, but probably not illustrative of anything other than the basic principle. True, it nearly gave me a heart attack when I saw that 'my network' was wide open, but censorship doesn't cause a dodgy ticker!

But, there are still wider implications. Who decides what should be classed as Adult content, and who decides what should be illegal content? And what right do they have to decide for me?

If something is illegal, then it is illegal. There's very little benefit to blocking it, even trying to filter pages telling you how to make bombs is redundant. More will continue to pop-up, or the information will be disseminated in print.

Censorship fails in its goals, and spreads uncontrollably. As people grow weary of being censored, they seek out ways to bypass it. So pages disseminating that information are added to the blocklist, but more appear. Eventually you end up with a list of blocked URL's, Keywords that even the speed of peoples connections is negatively impacted.

And that's before politicians start secretly adding other types of site to the list. Imagine if Labour blocked the websites of all the other Political Parties in the run up  to an election. Image if a mistake was made, and Internet Banking Websites were blocked (especially if you use an Internet only bank.)

Imagine a world where every page you load may have been altered en route to tell you what the Government wants it to say.

This is why Censorship is criticised, objecting to blocking a few thousand child pornography sites may seem a little questionable. Many can probably not understand how anyone can bring the concept of 'Free Speech' into such actions, but the reality is that it is not about Child Porn. The objections arise because people are concerned about where the censorship will appear next.

None of us want Child Porn to exist, and stumbling upon it is probably highly unpleasant. But do you believe that people could become pedophiles simply by stumbling across such a site? Not without some sort of trace of that behaviour beforehand.

And that's all that this current level of censorship really stops, the pedophiles will already have bypassed the censorship mechanisms. The sites are still there because we live in a world that would rather hide the symptoms from the General Population, than actually tackle the sickness.

The level of censorship is entirely dependant on the people controlling it. We are not as censored as China, and currently it would appear that only illegal sites are being censored, and then only those deemed as a risk to children. But, it still has practical effects in the real world.

I would like to believe that rather than a Censor and forget effort, the creators of Pedophillic (is that a word?) sites are being tracked down and castrated arrested. But I can't help feel that much of the effort is being wasted on the Censorship.

As the Australians have already noticed, Censorship is a very slippery slope. Once it reaches a level where you truly notice it, it is far too late to do anything about it.

All you can really do about it at the moment, is to make it clear to your ISP that you do not wish to use a Censored version of the net (for Gods Sake, don't mention Child Porn!). The odds are that they won't listen to you, especially as the Government is looking at enforcing the IWF list, but if enough voices are heard, they will have to listen!

If your Mobile phone provider filters your net access, tell them you want it removed. Don't give them Credit Card details, or travel into branch. Tell them you will transfer to another provider that does not censor if they are not willing to meet your expectations. You can transfer mobile phone numbers, so there's far less hassle for you than there is for them.