Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why censoring the Internet won’t work

Governments around the world are trying to get to grips with the notion that the Internet allows unfettered communications between individuals. This is a threat to almost all societies, and leads to “moral” arguments to control people’s access to, and activities on the Internet. It’s hard to draw a hard and fast line globally about what is moral to suppress and what is not, unless you take the view that the sharing of any kind of information is acceptable under any circumstances. I don’t take that view; there are some things in my view which are reprehensible or harmful and I am happy that my government tries to deal with them. The main area that comes to mind is child abuse images (CAI), a.k.a child pornography. However, agreeing that governments have the right to control some kinds of information on the Internet does leave us open to the “slippery slope” argument, which we have already seen operating across the government where the Australian government has tried to censor access to public information site Wikileaks because it published a list of sites already censored by the Australian government.

There are various measures available to Internet censors. China, for instance, runs the so-called “Great Firewall” – a single point of access for all Internet traffic entering and leaving the country. Centralized national firewalls offer a high level of control, but they find it hard to deal with traffic which is encrypted (as a lot of Internet traffic is, routinely). Almost invariably, they have to block a lot of material which is wider than their intended purpose, just to be sure. You can’t allow free access to Google if you don’t your population to even be able to search for specific concepts. Another issue is that the engineering for the great firewall gets quite problematic. It needs to be able to pass a great deal of traffic very quickly while filtering out the “bad” stuff. Finally, there needs to be a staff who are dedicated to controlling the filter, adding new sites to it, perhaps removing old ones, and generally dealing with issues it throws up.

A more limited technical measure is to control the Domain Name System (DNS) in the country. This means that people typing the address of a “bad” site into their browser would instead get a page saying “naughty naughty” or some such. In fact, if they knew the IP number to go to – and it wouldn’t be hard for a determined person to find this – they will evade this form of censorship altogether. This technique would involve its own engineering challenges as well as the problem of managing the list of bad sites.

And deciding what gets blocked is the core of the problem with automated, technical measures like the two described above. There’s no way for the general public to inspect the list of what gets blocked – if you publish the list, you are just publishing a list of sites that you don’t want people to go to. If you don’t publish the list, there is no accountability that governments will only block CAI (or whatever they have said they will). The list can and will expand for several reasons: incompetence, in the case of the Queensland dentist’s site blocked by the Australian filter; a desire to protect the filter itself (Wikileaks); and an extension or what we regard as repugnant or harmful, but don’t necessarily want a public debate about.

There is another technique that governments use to control what people do on the Internet. That is, simply, to watch what is going on within their country and apply real-world sanctions to people breaking the law. All countries do this to a greater or lesser extent. In New Zealand, for instance, the Department of Internal Affairs looks for images of child abuse (i.e. child pornography) and prosecutes people involved in making or trading them. The recent charges brought against a blogger for allegedly breaking a suppression order are another example. This approach seems the natural one for an open society like New Zealand to take. It relies on humans to detect and discern illegal activity rather than machines. That’s how our court system works. It’s also how law enforcement works. We don’t require people to have licences for cameras; of course not, cameras are widely used for a variety of entirely legal purposes. We prosecute people who use cameras to break the law. It should be the same for computers and the Internet.

To summarise: filtering the Internet is problematic technically, but most of all it is incompatible with a democratic open society. Prosecute the wrongdoers but leave the Internet alone.

posted by colin at 4:54 pm  

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The mobile network wars

It’s a really exciting time in the development of New Zealand’s mobile phone networks. We now have two different 3G network available to 97% of the country. Choice!

I’ll be talking about this and more on Radio New Zealand National after the news today. You can read on for my speaking notes, or after the programme you can download the audio as ogg or mp3. (more…)

posted by colin at 8:30 pm  

Monday, August 10, 2009

iPhone in XT-land

As I said on the radio last week, I recently changed my iPhone from Vodafone service to Telecom’s XT network.

I did it primarily because Vodafone’s coverage at my house in Wellington was so poor. Every time the mobile rang I would have to run upstairs with it and get out onto the deck to hear the caller. Vodafone say they are going to do some more “infill” of their urban Wellington coverage next year; I can’t wait that long.

posted by colin at 7:30 am  

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Moped Diaries

I’m just about to leave Atiu, an island in the Cook Islands. I’ve had a fantastic few days here, and I’ve also had an insight into life in a small isolated community in the Pacific.

Atiu has less than 500 permanent inhabitants, plus at the moment 12 vistors. Put another way, visiting with my immediate family has increased the number of people on the island by a percentage point.

The people are very welcoming. I’m staying at the Atiu Villas, run by expatriate kiwi Dr Roger Malcolm and his wife Kura Malcolm, who is from Atiu. Everyone greets you as you pass them, and people are uniformly friendly. Nobody locks anything, and keys are normally left in vehicles. People all seem to be bilingual in Cook Islands Maori and English.

posted by colin at 6:03 am  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

iPhone tethering – it rocks

iPhone tethered small3.jpgWith the 3.0 update of iPhone software, you can ‘tether’ your iPhone to your computer so the computer uses the iPhone’s Internet connection. (The word ‘tethering’ is used to imply that the phone is physically connected to the computer, although in practice mostly people tether now using a wireless bluetooth connection.)

posted by colin at 3:03 pm  

Thursday, May 21, 2009

XT – the media event

I went yesterday to the media event which Telecom set up to reveal more about its XT network.

The event was held in the Westin Hotel in Auckland. Paul Reynolds, the Telecom CE, and Alan Goudie, Head of Retail, sat behind a coffee table and spoke reasonably informally to 30-40 media and technology types sitting on brightly coloured cubes. Telecom staffers in branded t-shirts hovered around the edges of the room, ready to show of their new wares. A couple of TV cameras were set up among the audience.


posted by colin at 9:28 am  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Let’s take it for a spin

OK, so I went to the Telecom XT launch in Auckland today. I’ll blog about what went on tomorrow. But for now: Telecom are very proud of the technical quality of their network. Test-drive it for a month, they said. And they showed us some upcoming TV ads of people doing just that. Then they lent me a phone and a SIM to try it out with.

I’m keen to give this thing a blast. I’d love suggestions on what to try. Anything goes provided it doesn’t damage the phone (or me!), and I can do it in and around Wellington. The phone is a Nokia 6120. I’ll post results on the site.

Suggestions, please?

posted by colin at 8:51 pm  

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A tale told by an idiot

There’s a column by Debbie Mayo Smith in today’s Herald (Business users not getting the text message) extolling the virtues of text messaging for communicating with customers. Debbie’s thesis is that busy people get a lot of email already and she doesn’t want her messages to queue up with them. “Text does not have an IT manager, ISP or company filtering it out”, she says.

Well, yes. That’s rather the point. Most of us have no way of filtering text messages short of ditching our mobiles. We tend to look at our text messages immediately. It’s personal, almost intimate. That’s why I’m concerned about the Herald article. (more…)

posted by colin at 9:35 am  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Anatomy of a smear

I’ve been involved in the campaign against Section 92A of the Copyright Act since before the election. On at least two occasions I’ve heard from journalists that someone they wouldn’t name was trying to plant stories linking anti-S92A activists with, of all things, child pornography. We gritted our teeth and ignored it.

Last weekend this all broke wide open. Video rental shops in the larger chains tried to get their customers to sign a petition demanding that S92A be retained. In one of the United Video shops around Hamilton, at least, video shop staff were telling customers that this petition was all about stopping child pornography. They were told to say that, they said, by their manager. (more…)

posted by colin at 3:09 pm  

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Radio New Zealand slot

Starting today, I’m sharing the Thursday morning Radio New Zealand technology slot with Nathan Torkington. Nat has done it before when I’ve been away, and he’s very good. He’s a kiwi who came back after an illustrious career in the States.

Nat and I will do alternate Thursdays. He’s up today, so be sure to listen!

Here’s a funny to keep you going until 11am:

posted by colin at 7:50 am  
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