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Law Commission Demands ISPs Filter the Internet

Posted on November 16, 2009

Updated: see our update to this post.

Sometimes it seems that every day there is another threat to people's abilities to use the Internet. Each special interest group has their own barrow to push, often with honourable intent, that causes them to make impossible or unreasonable demands.

Today's effort is from the Law Commission. They've published their Suppressing Names and Evidence report and it includes the following (recommendation 26 from the report, page 66, PDF):

Where an internet service provider or content host becomes aware that they are carrying or hosting information that they know is in breach of a suppression order, it should be an offence for them to fail to remove the information or to fail to block access to it as soon as reasonably practicable.


There's nothing new in extending the current rules about not publishing suppressed material to hosting an Internet website publishing the suppressed material.

The more worrying part is the use of the word "carrying" which, as far as I can tell, can only refer to information that the ISP (Internet Service Provider) is carrying between 'somewhere on the Internet' and the user.

By demanding that the ISP be able to block access, the Law Commission is demanding that all ISPs must implement a filtering system that is capable of blocking any access on any Internet protocol to any Internet address that may have the suppressed information. If they fail to do so, penalties include fines and imprisonment (exactly how you imprison an ISP I am not sure).

There are a number of problems with this:

  1. Each ISP would have to implement a filtering system and this would be incredibly expensive.
  2. It puts an unreasonable responsibility on the ISP.
  3. Who would be responsible for removing information blocks when a suppression order is lifted?
  4. Most importantly, what they have asked for is technically impossible to implement.

Why is it technically impossible?

Information is shared on the Internet using a number of different methods (protocols). They include email, online chat, web pages, and peer to peer file-sharing. A number of these different protocols use encryption between the user and the site. For example, banks and online shops all use secure web traffic (HTTPS) to keep your transactions safe from interception.

If a piece of suppressed information is made available at an Internet address that uses encryption, the ISP can't read the encrypted request and will therefore have to block all traffic to that Internet address. If your online shop uses the same Internet address as a site with suppressed information (sharing Internet addresses is very common, with some addresses hosting thousands of sites), access to your shop will also be blocked.

This means that every time someone overseas publishes information contrary to a suppression order from the New Zealand courts, a number of websites will have to be blocked. This will fundamentally break the Internet in New Zealand.

Of course, if you run a bookstore in New Zealand I suggest that you might find it advantageous to make sure to add some suppressed information to a review on amazon.com!

This doesn't even cover the technical difficulties and costs involved in deploying a blocking system that can filter everything on the Internet. You may note that the Chinese Government has spent a lot of time and effort building their Great Firewall of China and even that does a poor job of blocking information.

Conclusion

I believe the Law Commission needs to rethink this recommendation. The blocking they have asked for is technically impossible to implement without breaking the Internet.

Of course, if it's impossible to suppress information on the Internet, is there any point in suppressing it in newspapers and other media? We may have to accept that we cannot suppress information on a pervasive global communications network.

It looks as though the Law Commission's report may be obsolete on the day it was published.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The very thing that makes the Internet so good is also the very thing that makes it bad: any cretin can put whatever they want on it. It is largely impossible to try and stop people from trying to send information via the Internet that they are not supposed to, such as suppression orders, simply because either the technology does not exist or it can be easily evaded. One only has to look at how easy it is for spammers to get around anti-spam laws and technology.

    The Law Commission should concentrate on promoting getting tough on judges who use suppression orders in cases where the grounds are dubious, such as the recent one relating to the high-profile Wellington entertainer, rather than on putting forward proposals that are poorly thought out.

  2. There’s always Tor (https://www.torproject.org). Properly configured, Tor makes traffic analysis and censorship extremely difficult. If the ISPs are forced to block Tor’s entry nodes, start using nonpublished bridge nodes. Even in places such as China and Iran some users are able to access the network. The main drawback is it’s speed, but it’s very good for most sites. Then there’s Jondonym, I2P and various other web proxies scattered throughout the world. If they’re really serious about filtering, pretty soon the New Zealand Internet will be as barren as North Korea’s.


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