ben hoskings

Open Letter to Senator the Hon Stephen Conroy, Australian Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy

Dear Minister,

As an Australian and an internet user, I have grave concerns regarding the mandatory internet filter that is currently being deployed in Australia. My concerns are three-fold.

Considering this, deploying any mandatory, nation-wide content filter is misguided, damaging and foolish in the extreme.

The filter will have no effect on the deliberate transfer of illegal content on the Internet.

As a web developer with an intimate understanding of how the Internet works, it is clear to me that the filter will fail to stop the transfer of the content it has been created to fight. Unlawful content—whether it be child pornography, copyrighted material, or anything else—can easily be moved around by those who are determined to do so.

Encrypted connections, known as SSL connections, are trivially easy to create between a sender and receiver, so that the content passing between the two nodes is unreadable by a third party. The only way to prevent unfiltered content passing over SSL connections is to block them entirely. Blocking SSL traffic is not an option, because internet banking and all other secure websites rely on SSL and would be rendered non-functional. SSL connections are but one of many tools that criminals can and will employ to circumvent the filter.

Illegal activity on the Internet shares an intrinsic trait with real-world illegal activity—those wishing to engage in it will find a way to do so, and it is the job of law enforcement to pursue them directly. Applying a blanket nation-wide restriction is an unacceptable solution. Those among us who choose to access or create illegal content will continue to do so, largely with impunity.

The filter will fail to protect children from illegal and inappropriate content.

Content filters, broadly, are based either on blacklists or heuristics. A blacklist is by definition reactive and cannot respond to emerging content immediately. Heuristics are by definition imprecise, blocking only the majority of content they are designed to detect.

It is certainly possible that the filter could reduce the amount of illegal content that is readily available on the Internet, but reducing it to acceptably low levels is infeasible, and eliminating it is fundamentally impossible.

With the filter in place, Australians can no longer rely on having the uncensored, unmonitored access to legal content that democracy demands.

Installing technology that is designed expressly to censor, and then trusting that it will never be used inappropriately, is futile.

Minister, please understand: I am not suggesting you or the Government harbour an ulterior motive, and I am not suggesting that you intend to curtail intellectual freedom in Australia.

What I am saying, though, is that you have built a tool that is designed to perform exactly that task.

What I am saying is that you have brought about a situation where such an eventual curtailment is inevitable. You may intend to block only content that we all agree is defenceless—child pornography, criminal activity. Who will personally see that the filter is never used politically? Some would say it is reasonable to also block hate speech that incites violence. Radical views that incite fanaticism. Fringe views that incite crackpottery. Controversial views that incite debate?

With this tool in place, Australians can have no confidence that they have open access to information. I find it incredible that we have reached this point in Australia, a country that has fought wars to protect the freedoms of its own and other people.

The safety of Australian children is of acute importance. The safety of Australian intellectual freedom, however, is even more important, and censorship of the world’s primary communication channels is incomparably more damaging to the latter than it is protective of the former.

A nation-wide internet filter will not stop illegal activity online, will fail to protect children, and will do nothing less than undermine our democracy.

I trust that you will give my argument your careful consideration and re-evaluate the future of this unfortunate exercise.

Sincerely yours,
Ben Hoskings

This letter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.