Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

All we need to do is filter the Internet

Posted on December 7, 2009

Compare:

Judge David Harvey told the seminar that internet providers (ISPs) should be set up specifically to block suppressed information and issue "take-down" notices to those who had posted it. "Internet content can in fact be managed and controlled. It is a question ... of how far we want to go to do that."
'Alliance' needed to enforce name suppression online, Stuff.co.nz

And contrast:

Seeking to deny the protesters a chance to reassert their voice, authorities slowed Internet connections to a crawl in the capital, Tehran. For some periods on Sunday, Web access was completely shut down — a tactic that was also used before last month's demonstration.
Iran chokes off Internet on eve of student rallies, Yahoo News

There is an increasing queue of groups demanding that the Internet be filtered of various kinds of content and usage. From child pornography, to copyright violation, to speech that harms the government of the day, to matters before courts that are not visible to the public in their full detail.

The answer in all of these cases is "just filter the Internet". But those advancing such filtering fail to understand that unless you remove all Internet access from everywhere, including blocking satellite communications which already deliver Internet access to remote parts, you cannot prevent information from flowing on the Internet. There is an old saying, "The Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it".

Routing around the damage

To understand why these suggestions of filtering the Internet are at odds with reality, it helps if we understand what the Internet is not.

The Internet is not websites. It is not chat rooms, nor is it blogs or message boards or video streams or anything that you see on your machine. Those things are nothing more than a view that is only made intelligent by the ends of the network - by your computer and by the computer at the very far end from you. Everything in the middle has no knowledge or understanding of what your packets mean, they are just packets of anonymous data, out of order and without even the assurance they will get delivered. This is called the End to End Principle, and is the core reason why the Internet has been a success, and why effective filtering it not possible.

When the very first webserver appeared, and the very first browser was used to read content from it, this event happened without anyone in the middle of the network having any idea what was taking place. The End to End Principle places all intelligence at the edges, but it also means the network is immediately adaptable to any possible use without any requirement for your ISP, the exchange where  your ISP connects with others, the hubs in other countries, and so forth to know anything at all about your use.

Today, there are a number of methods used to exchange useful information on the Internet, but these are all just packets.

The polymorphic network

If I created a new and interesting way to communicate with others, then I can deploy that to the Internet without anyone's permission, without requiring approval from a government or a technical body. I can simply write some code, deploy my code amongst people I know, and it will work without anyone else being aware of it.

Because I can make up any way of communicating I dream of, effective filtering the Internet is not possible. I can employ a wide variety of techniques and protection to my communications which cannot be stopped. Even if you try to limit Internet access to "approved" uses, I can use those uses to create secret embedded channels that you will never find.

This has been used to great effect in other countries to defeat attempts to limit access. Countries such as Iran and China have attempted to limit Internet access to approved means, and yet information still gets in and out via the Internet. Even if we were to give up all the freedoms we have to implement their solutions, it still wouldn't work.

In simple ways, I can use encryption to prevent what I am accessing being visible to others. Accessing your bank's website, for example, already involves using encrypted access so the presence of it would not be unusual by any means. But let's say that we don't allow encrypted access to websites without being inspected, I can just deploy encryption within normal-looking access. Or I can re-encode my access so that appears as gibberish, but otherwise possibly valid english text. Or any one of a number of ways that would defeat any manner of filtering put in place.

So long as any data is allowed at all between two points, it can be used for any purpose. Filtering is then an arms race between those who wish to suppress content and those who want it to be distributed and available.

All or nothing

In short, the openness of the Internet guarantees that no regime, no government, no company, no-one can stop information from moving around the Internet, unless you turn off the Internet entirely.

The horse has not merely bolted, it is well gone. The question now is not how to filter the Internet, but how to work in an environment that has instantaneous and ubiquitous communications accessible to everyone, everywhere, and without any useful means of control.

In the past, we have traded free speech for privacy and the right to a fair trial. But is this trade-off actually possible any more? We have developed communications far beyond the limits of our village, our town, our country, past the point where we can choose between freedom of speech, and other rights. Filtering the Internet to maintain this illusion is not possible. People will always find a way to communicate what they want to say.

Posted by Tech Liberty

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Even if you’re correct (and I’m not qualified to judge), this is but a technical perspective. In absolute terms you might be right, but it takes effort to use Haystack in Iran or punch a VPN hole in the Great Wall of China. Less than 100% of people will do it, therefore you have some degree of ‘success’ in your filtering. You then use non-technical means to achieve your goals, social engineering, political will, lobbyists… you get the idea. I think us techos underestimate the power of politicians even in the technical world – they will force-implement whatever they (think the electorate) want, sometimes no matter what is said and for deeply buried reasons.

    I don’t know what is the best response. Educational blog posts like this one are probably helpful, especially since you aren’t being overly antagonistic about it.

  2. I guess that one important issue is whether the New Zealand people are prepared to have the NZ government block major sites like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Wikipedia, and every other site with user content. I don’t think they will.

    The difference between NZ and China/Iran is that we still have a democracy in New Zealand.


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