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Blocking blunders

Blocking blunders

Censorship plans based on good intentions are likely to stumble and fall. They'll create more problems than they fix and foster a web of deceit.

"What did you get for Christmas?" my deputy asked as we both returned to the office for the first time in 2010. "

Books," I replied. "Kindle?" he prodded.

"No," I answered. "I got good old sheaves of dead tree pulp, bound with evaporated thermoplastic elastomers. I was also given a compact disc made of petrochemical-derived polymers, encasing a film of compressed aluminium."

"That's not very 2010, is it?" he replied.

"You're right," I said, quickly recognising the moderate absurdity of a chief information officer receiving a fistful of physical artefacts as gifts.

"I suppose I really should have let my family know that I only want gifts that are readily transmissible over IP networks."

"Don't be so sure of that," my colleague replied. "The government frowns on digital media."

Further explanation was required on this front, so I asked for it.

"I've been reading up on the internet filter," he said. "The fact that a trial showed it is possible to block URLs means nothing, because the $300 routers we deploy to remote offices can block about a million an hour, without so much as disrupting the flow of a single email.

"We also know that all of our staff under 30 can get round URL blockers and onto Facebook whenever they want to.

"Then you have to realise that the filter cannot keep kids safe, because no one ever bumps into refused classification material by accident. The crims who create it and the creeps that consume it know that using the web to feed their fetishes is tantamount to flipping open a laptop in the lobby of a police station and reading an al-Qaeda training manual aloud. They're all over various back channels instead, and those are more or less undetectable."

This much I knew, so I pressed for the relevant bits.

"Then there's the problem of maintaining a secret list of websites to block, because secrecy means a list could be abused by folks who press for certain sites to be blocked to further their ideological agenda."

"Is anyone seriously suggesting a government could be so corrupt?" I inquired. "Or are we worried about some kind of Godwin Grech [the public servant of email fame] proactively doing the bidding of a shadowy master?"

Shadowy concerns

"Almost," my second replied. "The Grech equivalents at the Office of Film and Literature Classification are actually quite accountable, thanks to a published list of all the material they assess - even the refused classification stuff. You can click on it and see if Naughty Nazis or whatever has been assessed."

This sounded interesting, so I tried to complete my friend's thought.

"And once you have found out what has been banned, you can search online for an overseas vendor that sells it and try your luck getting a DVD sent through Customs."

"But the list of blocked websites probably won't be on that database," I continued, gathering pace. "There's no point having a searchable list of things that are blocked. So we're heading for a situation in which you won't be told something that has been refused classification even exists if it is online.

"But the government will happily keep telling you exactly what it has refused to classify based on its assessment of sheaves of dead tree pulp, all bound with evaporated thermoplastic elastomers. Information stored on discs made of petrochemical-derived polymers that encase a film of compressed aluminium is fine, too."

"You get it," my deputy said. "The idea of the filter is that anyone who wants to view those few items we have declared to be exempt from general provisions of free speech will either need to adopt digital back channels or import physical artefacts.

"One nation or another will set itself up as an equivalent of the ACT and offer a more permissive approach to content creation and distribution, then someone enterprising will figure out how to ensure that the stamps on small rectangular parcels aren't a dead giveaway to Customs.

"Creeps will set up shadow identities and post office boxes to make their deliveries undetectable. We'll block the web, leave the real problem untouched and make the

dummies smarter by forcing them to use the government's own accountability-driven list of obscenities as their catalogue."

This scenario, I noted, would make the problem of refused classification material worse than it is today, creating an even harder to detect underground in which not even an IP address offers a hint of evil-doing.

"But that's terrible," I said. "Surely that's not the aim of the filter!"

"Not at all," my deputy said. "But as I said when we were talking about your Christmas presents, elastomers and polymers seem to be the way the government wants you to consume content."

"That's ridiculous," I said, adding some richer language.

"I agree 100 percent," my friend added. "This does indeed seem the product of a male bovine gastrointestinal tract."

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