Relax: Conroy's filter can be safely ignored

Relax: Conroy's filter can be safely ignored

Summary: After years of spruiking Australia's so-called "mandatory" internet filter comes the revelation, from no less than Stephen Conroy, that it is in fact optional: anybody who wants to circumvent the filter is free to do so without penalty. One might ask: what, then, is the point of this whole expensive exercise?


Years ago, I was with a group of journalists discussing region-coded DVDs with the head of a large electronics manufacturer. We asked how vendors got away with stripping the region-coding feature from the DVD players they sell, which technically seemed to be an illegal violation of DVD licensing and copyright laws. "It's funny," he replied. "It just seems to happen whenever the shipping containers pass under the gantries on the highway from the port. We can't do anything about it."

I suspect similar conversations will be common in a few years, after Senator Stephen Conroy's misguided (he prefers the word "modest") internet filter has been implemented and vendors are selling computers that are pre-configured to bypass it completely or small downloadable filter-circumvention apps undo years of debate and millions of wasted taxpayer dollars with a single click.

All of this would, it appears, be absolutely fine to do. Because with Exit International and Pirate Party Australia-sponsored classes teaching senior citizens how to bypass the filter and access refused-classification euthanasia-related information, the revelation from the minister's office that such classes are not illegal gave way to an even bigger revelation: it will not be an offence to bypass the filter.

(Sieve image by Pearson Scott Foresman, public domain)

Not at all. Not one bit. You won't get fined, jailed, reprimanded, or even forced to sit through one of Tony Smith's speeches as punishment for circumventing the filter. The government does not care, in the least, whether you reconfigure your system to bypass the filter, or teach a hundred people to each teach a hundred others to do it. "I would like to get everyone here to share the information here with as many people as you can, while you can," seminar leader David Campbell exhorted attendees at the Melbourne event.

Electronic Frontiers Australia has already indicated it might even do the hard part for you. Philip Nitschke, who has had more than a few tussles with the government over availability of information, is considering similar actions as part of Exit International's campaign of defiance: "It's one of the things we're going to be putting some of our resources into now," he told me during the Exit session, "because we can see it being an important strategy for the future."

The government does not care, in the least, whether you reconfigure your system to bypass the filter, or teach a hundred people to each teach a hundred others to do it ... call me old-fashioned, but if you're going to pass a law, tradition says that you also set down penalties for breaking that law.

Here, perhaps, it's instructive to quote the government itself: "The independent report on the ISP-level filtering pilot trial found that technically competent people could circumvent filtering technologies," Conroy's office told me in an emailed statement. "Under the government's policy it will not be an offence to circumvent the filtering measures or to show someone how to circumvent."

Now, call me old-fashioned, but if you're going to pass a law, tradition says that you also set down penalties for breaking that law — you know, so people don't break it. For example, Australia's content censorship legislation (PDF) — which Conroy keeps referencing, saying the filter is just an extension of it — lays down fines and potential jail time for infringements. If you possess, circulate, or even facilitate the acquisition of copies of "Stuntgirl" or any of the hundreds of other RC movies, publications and games that are banned in Australia, you're going to be in trouble. But if you help your best mate download a copy online by circumventing the filter, well, that seems to be OK.

OK for you, at least; he'd still be in trouble under existing laws for possessing the movie — which, research tells me, is "like a fever dream dredged from the brainpans of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky and Gerard Damiano ... unequivocally, a work of pure art". Heck, that doesn't sound any worse than Mulholland Drive. Although I concede that it may well be.

Artistic pretensions aside, this is exactly the point that many of the filter's critics have made: existing law more than covers the possession or supply of this rubbish. Filter legislation adds nothing valuable to the whole equation, while creating an inaccurate feeling that the government is actually doing something to protect Australian children. The only part of Labor's $128.8 million Cyber Safety policy that will have that effect is its addition of dozens of additional Australian Federal Police officers to pursue and prosecute those involved in child porn and other nastiness.

The filter would suit Conroy's stated objectives more accurately if he were seeking to ban x-rated materials, too. But that presents new logistical problems: the kind of x-rated material that comprises the bulk of internet porn is actually legal in the ACT and most of the Northern Territory. This makes it impossible to expand the filter's scope to a point where it actually would protect against internet porn, since it would contradict the laws of two Australian jurisdictions and cause all sorts of bunfights. In the meantime, Australian children will be blocked from accessing child porn sites but will face no limitations accessing YouPorn or thousands of other x-rated sites.

Conroy isn't saving Australia's internet; he's just laying the framework for one of the world's easiest hacking competitions.

That's Labor's cyber-safety in action, folks. And if Conroy wants to know what will happen once the legislation is introduced, he should probably consider the example of the region-free DVD players, or Apple's iPhone, Apple TV or iTunes software. Those devices, after all, were quickly jailbroken by enthusiasts who wanted to get them to do more than they were designed for. Apple's desperate legal measures, which included suing a forum for hosting a discussion about iTunes' security and fighting suggestions that jailbreaking be explicitly declared a legal exemption to copyright law, have done absolutely nothing to stop hackers from continuing to bypass its protections. Even the iPad, hackers suggest, can be jailbroken using increasingly simple techniques. And the Apple TV can be easily reprogrammed to do much more than Apple intended, using a simple application called aTV Flash.

Since there are no penalties for bypassing the filter, all Conroy is going to accomplish with his legislation is to create a new hacking target for coders. Assuming they can even be bothered with such an easy target, there will be races not to bypass the filter, but to develop the simplest, easiest method of doing so — much as hackers worked to write the shortest version of the DeCSS code that allows extraction of movie content from DVDs. Conroy isn't saving Australia's internet; he's just laying the framework for one of the world's easiest hacking competitions. Since he's already given the OK to circumvent the filter, why not at least offer a cash prize to make it interesting?

Within what I would expect to be a period of months if not weeks, anybody who has an issue with the filter will be able to bypass it on their computer, their mother's computer, their sister's computer and their neighbour's computer with a widely available application — whose distribution cannot even be banned under the filter legislation because, again, bypassing the filter is not a crime.

In fact, my deeply cynical half — OK, three-quarters — suspects the inevitable scams could even use promises of filter circumvention to spread all sorts of malware. This would be unexpected collateral damage that would cause even more problems for Conroy.

Since the government's "mandatory" filter is in fact optional, the only people restricted by it will be those who honestly don't care, or lack the technical skills or caring friends to have the government's censorship removed. And just as some cynics argue that the only people on juries are those without the ability to figure out how to get out of jury duty, the only people the filter will ultimately protect will probably be those for whom RC content never offered an attraction or threat in the first place. For everyone else, the filter will be nothing more than a tranquillised white elephant — large, mean-looking and easily stepped around.

Topics: Government, Government AU, Security, IT Employment


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • The ease and legality of circumventing the blackwall and its ultimate inefficacy are not, as you would seem to argue, reasons to stop caring whether or not is implemented. They are among the better arguments for the abandoning of the entire idea.

    The opportunity cost of this wasteful and utterly ineffective scheme is millions of taxpayer's dollars, which could be put towards increased policing and prosecution of criminals engaged in producing the illegal content that Conroy seeks to sweep under the mat.

    Conroy's blackwall is not as benign as he would have you believe.
  • Please note that the possession and viewing of RC material is not illegal in most parts of Australia. The exceptions are Western Australia and parts of the NT -- or -- where the material is illegal under another act such as with child abuse material. It is illegal to sell or exhibit RC material, but if you are outside of WA and not breaking any laws, the law allows you to own and view RC material. Conroy's proposed filter goes a step beyond existing laws and attempts to stop all Australian's viewing material they currently have every right to read or view.

    You wrote:

    "If you possess, circulate, or even facilitate the acquisition of copies of "Stuntgirl" or any of the hundreds of other RC movies, publications and games that are banned in Australia, you're going to be in trouble."
  • A very valid point, and you are correct; my initial statement was based on a quick reading of the legislation that included what may have been a premature jump to the penalties section of Part 10, which deals only with the 'prescribed areas' you mention. And even those restrictions are set to be lifted on 18 August 2012.

    Which actually strengthens my point, and that of everybody who sees the filter as baseless, ineffective and irrelevant: if there are actually no penalties for most people possessing this content, apart from that which is set out and enforceable in related (eg child pornography) laws, there is even less reason to go to all this effort. Curiouser and curiouser...
  • Regarding hacking the filter. One way to find out the sites that are blocked is to send a random request via your normal local dns server which will be intercepted by the filter. If it is blocked or the random address is not real then it will time out.
    At the same time you send the same address via proxy or vpn to a dns server in America. If it comes back with a site then that site is on the filter.

    A program needs to be created which will automate the lookup and also share the job of lookup via thousands of computers similar to the way BOINC works

    The lookup can work similar to a search engines web crawling

    Before you know it the filter will be in the public domain
  • If all this is true, then I have one simple question for the Senator:

    Why is it not opt-in? Or at the absolute very least, opt-out?
  • To OwenK,

    If the filter is opt-in OR opt-out, it is likely to be implemented in a way that is actually WORSE than the mandatory approach.

    In an opt-X approach, instead of doing a blind block of all bad requests, all bad requests will then result in a look up to see who is requesting the page. That lookup is likely to be stored somewhere. Who will have access to that log? Nobody at first... And then?

    It's not worth the risk in any configuration.
  • David,

    While you make some valid points I think there are a couple of important things that you haven't mentioned.

    Firstly, there is no "hacking" really required to get around the filter. We know exactly how to bypass it already - simply use a proxy. It's something that can be done in under a minute for most people.

    The issue, however, is that when you use a proxy you will inevitably be subject to delays and bottlenecks in the connection. Most people will likely use a US proxy to get around the filter. This solution will also add around 200ms at least to any web requests. If you want something reliable you're going to need to pay, perhaps around $15 a month.
  • Very well said and fully agree. The whole thing is a political theater and a waste of tax payers' dollars in the same vein as Insulation debacle, Green-loan, and BER. Why don't they put their energy into looking after this country - infrastructure failure to cope with growth, attracting companies to Australia to do value add rather than just to dig dirt.
  • He's not trying to save the internet, he is trying to save his career. If he backs out now and says he was wrong, its unlikely he will remain where he is. Not only that, but this whole filter is simply about winning the votes of those who don't know any better. The average Joe who believes this filter will "save the children". The government has most likely considered that us in-the-know, are a minority vote. So start educating all you know.
  • I think the filter is good for families. Sure technocrats and their mates may not be hindered, but many people aren't technocrats and the filter will stop children accessing material that we stop them accessing in other ways - magazines, etc.

    I seems inconsistent to say we'll censor movies etc, but not the net. The way the net is growing as a source of content, you might soon argue why bother with any censorship of anything, if the material can be accessed over the web. That the whole censorship apparatus is a waste of money.

    If we're going to "filter" TV and movies, we might as well filter the net

  • john.atkins one thing you are no considering when you say it is good for the family is who it stops from accessing the content.

    It will stop the older generation and elderly but they will be unlikely to access that content anyway. It may stop parents as well. As to kids well I am in IT and i have to say most kids i know are either in the know and could easily bypass the filter them selves, know how to search on the internet and follow instructions or would know a fellow kid that would do it for them.

    Parents need to stop kidding themselves. It is up to them to protect their kids not the government and you can install your own software that is likely to be much more effective or instead teach your kids. This filter will not stop them it will only stop you.

  • What you have written is all well and good, however you have overlooked some of Conroy's arguments in favour of Censorship, namely: that he is simply trying to achieve uniformity with existing Censorship, and that no one complained when the Howard Government introduced Censorship of Australian hosted websites. Since Conroy is using those 2 arguments now it is not unreasonable to assume that he may use them again. He need simply wait until after the filter is in place, then he could claim that nobody complained about the filter and that, in order to achieve uniformity in Censorship, circumventing the filter will be banned. Let us see how "relaxed" you will be then.
  • The problem is that the filter, by Conroy's own admission will only block the "worst of the worst". There are MANY MANY things that you'd want to block a child from seeing that this filter will not block (regular X-rated sites, for example).

    So the filter does not help in any way with what your children do on the internet: you will still need to be as vigilant as ever.
    Dean Harding
  • Conboy's spin about "mere uniformity" can only be taken seriously when he imposes the same secret censorship on every piece of mail in Australia Post and every phone call. He is going to do that, isn't he? No, thought not.

    After the next election Kruddman and Conboy will claim a mandate for censorship which will then include severe penalties for anyone trying to bypass it. There will also be a vastly expanded array of proscribed content, since the dynamic duo have already had secret meetings with the godbotherers about further lists of things that they want declared "inappropriate".

    The saddest part of all this is that there are wellmeaning but naive people who are still saying that no scope creep will be possible with the government filter. The reality is that any future govt will be able to use the filter mechanism to secretly block whatever they want, and no one will know about it because there are heavy penalties for any disclosure.
  • He who gives up freedom for security deserves neither.
  • lots of posters say filter can be circumvented,this seems only useful if you wish to access a known(to you) site.i,google topic,get results,not all results.wont know blocked results.
    thomas vesely