Statistics experts label ISP filtering trials unscientific

Earlier this year I added my $AUD0.02 to the debate around the Australian government’s ill-conceived, and, in fact, ludicrous plan to compulsorily censor the internet (under the Orwellian moniker of Cleanfeed).  My arguments against it were more ethical/ philosophical/ common sense, objecting that Cleanfeed:

  • was not needed
  • was not wanted
  • will not work
  • has no mandate
  • will be too expensive
  • will break things
  • will not scale
  • was not transparent
  • was vulnerable to scope creep

All pretty sound arguments if you ask me* [*nobody asked me].  Enough to drop the project in its embryonic stages you would have thought.  But no, Cleanfeed trials were launched and now maintain an unstable orbit around the planet Stupid.  Viz this recent article in ARN:

Statistics experts label ISP filtering trials unscientific: Trials for mandatory filtering would never be accepted in an academic statistics journal

The Federal Government’s ISP filter trials lack proper methodology and are not representative, according to experts in statistics and testing from two of Australia’s leading universities.

The criticisms come after two of the nine ISPs participating revealed only 15 of their customers, which in one case was 1 per cent of the total, chose to have their Internet filtered.

The vast majority of ISPs also used an opt-in system that requires users wanting to be filtered to request it.

“I would not have confidence in any of the results they find because of the way the sample has been constructed,” expert in statistics and senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, Dr Daniel Johnson, said.

So not only does Cleanfeed fail on ethical grounds, it now fails on hard scientific grounds.  As one of my statistical mentors, the legendary Professor Robert (Bob) F. Ling says, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”



Saying NO to Internet censorship in Australia

No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in Australia

Despite almost universal condemnation the Australian Government remains hell bent on pushing through its plan to censor the Internet.  The proposed Internet censor apparatus, appointed the neat Orwellian Newspeak term of “CLEANFEED”, will be mandatory for all citizens (or should that be subjects, since Australia is a constitutional monarchy?).

There will be no opt-out.

I understand that live trials of the filters are to commence in a couple of weeks.  I’m in a state of shock and awe that such a bone-headed scheme has progressed to this advanced stage.  I keep waiting for common sense to prevail and the whole ludicrous idea quietly abandoned.  But like a mosquito in a darkened bedroom the buzzing persists, menacing peaceful slumber.  Better to illuminate and swat the threat now than deal with painful itching later on.

But perhaps we should start from first principles.

My objection to “Cleanfeed” isn’t an objection to censorship per se.  I believe in censorship.  I think that everyone believes in censorship.  Everyone participates in a censorship regime.  Some censorship is beneficial.  I like the fact that my government keeps my tax and medical records private, for example.  I censor my children.  Hell, I even censor myself.  No problem.  The proper debate around censorship isn’t whether it’s necessary, but rather how much is necessary and who it should apply to.  A never-ending subjective argument.

Whenever a new censorship rule is proposed I find it useful to test the idea against several key criteria:

  • is it needed?
  • is it wanted?
  • will it work?
  • does the enforcer have the authority (i.e. the power and the right) to apply it?
  • will it be cost effective?
  • will it do more harm than good?
  • is it targeted properly at an identified problem?
  • will it be subject to third party independent oversight?
  • can it be abused?

With that in mind, my objection to Cleanfeed centres around the following nine points:

NOT NEEDED.  As mentioned above, some censorship is necessary.  The need for secrecy around issues of national security, for example, is a necessary evil.  But society as a whole is functioning just fine without a censored Internet.  Downloading kiddie porn is as illegal right now as it ever will be.  What is actually needed is more enforcement – additional resources made available to the federal police so that they can do their job catching the real criminals and perverts.

NOT WANTED.  Unlike laws protecting our personal privacy for example, the vast majority (>90% from most straw polls I’ve seen) of people really don’t want their Internet to be compulsorily filtered by the government.

WILL NOT WORK.  False positives.  False negatives.  Virtual Private Networks.  Proxies.  Leaked blacklists.  Good grief.  Even if by some miracle the Internet filter was accurate, the whole scheme can be circumvented in a heart beat.  Why are we wasting so much money, brains and time implementing something that will fail?  Interestingly (and amazingly) no-one really has an answer to this.

NO MANDATE.  The compulsory tier of the Internet filtering was NOT part of Labor policy leading into the 2007 election.  Labor went to the polls only offering an opt in/out solution.  The electorate does not appreciate their representatives lying to their faces.

TOO EXPENSIVE.  How much is this scheme going to increase average end user Internet costs?  $5 a month?  More?  Unacceptable.  By world standards Australian broadband is already too expensive.  The last thing we need is this millstone around our necks.

BREAKS THE INTERNET.  Cleanfeed will cripple web browsing.  And you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  The more effective the filter, the slower the Internet experience will be.  There will be unintended consequences.  Such as taking out one bad site can take out a whole host of unrelated and innocent sites.  And Cleanfeed is contradictory to Australia’s aim to increase speeds via the planned National Broadband Network.

NOT SCALABLE.  Will it work with new and emerging technologies?  IPv6?  P2P?  Usenet?  Email?  TLS/SSL?  I doubt it.  I doubt that the Cleanfeed proponents have even considered how their filtering tools will be bolted onto these protocols.

NO TRANSPARENCY.  We will never know if an error connecting to a site is due to some weird technical hitch or a false alarm from the filter.  From what I understand there will be no independent judicial oversight of the blacklist content or its implementation.  Sites on the list will simply be guilty until proven innocent.

SCOPE CREEP.  The blacklist will keep getting longer and longer and extend beyond the initial parameters.  Will the government at some point seek to ban access to sites related to gambling?  Euthanasia?  Hoon driving?  Drinking games?

The pro-“Cleanfeed” argument is like Monty Python’s Black Knight. It keeps taking mortal hit after mortal hit but keeps coming back with, “but it’s just a flesh wound!”

Someone, please, put Cleanfeed out of its misery.