Being a resident of Australia, the buzz around town at the moment is the recent announcement by the Telecommunications Minister, Stephen Conroy, that Australia will be looking to implement Internet filtering controls similar to those seen in countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
Now, I’m not wading into this from any particular angle, as with most things, there are good arguments for both sides.
But I did come across a great paper on this subject last year on Harvard Law School‘s Berkman Center for Internet and Society website by John Palfrey, titled “Reluctant Gatekeepers: Corporate Ethics on a Filtered Internet“.
It’s a really well written paper, and deals with not only the issues raised by Internet filtering, but also discusses the distinctions between Internet filtering and Internet surveillance, which I found most interesting.
The key point to process within Palfrey’s paper is the role of the “private actor”. These are the intermediaries employed by states who institute filtering schemes, who do the actual filtering work. They are generally civilians themselves, employed by companies charged with the commercial responsibility of performing the filtering. This is probably the most concerning aspect of the whole program, because any time you have humans intersecting technical joins, you are injecting a massive amount of risk and error into what should be a controlled technical process.
A simple example popped into my mind as I read the article, which is if you have company x performing the filtering work for government y on behalf of Internet user x, then there are two human decision gates between user x and their Internet information. Add this to the distributed nature of the Internet, and the sometimes specific nature of information, and you have a real problem. If I’m a specialist doctor who deals with sexually transmitted disease, and I need to access articles published overseas that use terms deemed “forbidden” in the local state, then you’re screwed. And while some states provide an opt-out option, none seem to detail exactly how that will work; whether I can elect to have completely unfiltered access, or whether I must explicitly opt-out of every exception that I encounter.
Either way, as a current student of Law and a former graduate of computer science, I find the intersection of technology, people and law as one of the most fascinating, yet challenging emerging disciplines. And as states start to embark on cross discipline policy, the impact to the everyday person is only going to become stronger.