Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Te Papa doesn’t know why it’s censoring the internet

Posted on April 30, 2012

We recently received a complaint from a German tourist saying that when he tried to access a couple of innocuous German political sites using the free wireless at Te Papa, a page was displayed saying that his access to those sites was blocked. Te Papa had implemented internet filtering software to control what websites people could access.

The tourist complained to Te Papa. They initially tried to fob him off, but eventually he got through to someone and those sites were removed from the filter. A good outcome, right?

Not So Simple

This incident raises a number of questions:

  • Why is Te Papa filtering what people see on the internet?
  • What type of content is being blocked?
  • Who chooses which types of content to block?
  • Finally, why are they using software that flags a German political website as "Pornography (Japanese)"?
Page showing that a German political website has been blocked because it contains pornography (Japanese).

Click on the image to see it fullsize.

Why censor internet access?

We spoke to Te Papa but they couldn't tell us why they felt the need to censor their wireless. They did know that they blocked file sharing protocols to reduce internet traffic but couldn't tell us why they were blocking some websites. We'd understand if Te Papa wanted to use some censorware on internet terminals available to children, but their filter goes far beyond that.

Are they worried that people will somehow download banned material? It's not their responsibility and it's not like they're monitoring phone calls to make sure people don't have illegal conversations.

Are they worried that people will browse offensive material (pictures/video) in a public place and annoy others? An increasing number of their guests have smartphones and "bring their own internet" and someone could as easily watch a porn DVD on a portable player. In any of these cases, it would be a simple matter of asking them to stop.

We reject the idea that internet providers (for that is what Te Papa is doing by providing free wireless) are in any way responsible for what an internet user does with that connection, in the same way that they aren't responsible if someone uses Te Papa provided water or electricity.

Te Papa's Filter

Te Papa could tell us that they are using internet filtering supplied by their internet service provider, Telstra Clear, but they had very little idea about how it works.

  • They don't know why they're blocking some types of content.
  • They don't know what type of content is being blocked.
  • They don't know who decides what to block and what criteria they use.
  • They don't really want to find out, saying that they're "happy for them [Telstra Clear] to make the decisions".

Any museum and art gallery is surely aware of issues around censorship and free speech, Te Papa itself has been involved in certain controversies about what should be shown and to who. Why has Te Papa chosen to censor the internet with so little thought about why and how? As our visiting tourist put it:

Seeing this happen at Te Papa, a flagship of the capital, tells me something about democracy and the importance of free speech and human rights in NZ.

Our view

We tend to side with the visiting German tourist - it's inappropriate for a place like Te Papa to be censoring the internet.

We suggest that worries about people accessing "bad material" over public internet are overstated. Any inappropriate behaviour (e.g. viewing internet pornography in a public place) can be solved by asking them to stop.

If an organisation decides to press on with censorship anyway, it would seem at a minimum that they should:

  • Be able to tell people what sort of material is blocked and why they're doing it.
  • Have a process for deciding what to block.
  • Provide an easy way to appeal any incorrect blocking.
  • Not use software that is as badly written as that used by Te Papa and TelstraClear.

Of course, once you look at all that, doesn't it just seem easier to let people have unconstrained internet access in the first place?

Guest post: The operation of NZ’s internet censorship filter

Posted on April 11, 2012

The following is a guest post from Matt Taylor about the operation of the government's internet censorship in New Zealand.

Survey shows opposition to mandatory govt internet filter

Posted on April 4, 2012

InternetNZ has commissioned a survey of the public's thoughts about the government's internet filter. Some of the interesting results include:

  • Very few people (only 9%) knew whether their ISP used the government filter. The ISPs using the filter represent more than 90% of the NZ internet market.
  • Less than a quarter (23%) wanted the government choosing whether to filter their internet connection.
  • Two-thirds want the filter to include other, non-specified, content.

Tech Liberty's Comment

We've always been opposed to the government's internet censorship system but support the right of people to choose filtering for themselves or their families. We're pleased to see that the people of New Zealand agree with us, rejecting the idea of letting the government impose centralised censorship.

Unfortunately we already have such a system. While it is voluntary at the ISP level, their users get no say in the matter and this survey shows that most are unaware that they are covered by it. We also note that with Telecom, Vodafone and 2 Degrees all having implemented the filter there are no major providers of censorship free mobile data in New Zealand, further undermining any voluntary aspect to the current filter.

At the same time it also seems obvious that the internet has a lot of disturbing content that you might want to block other than just child pornography. Therefore it makes sense that someone wanting "cleaner internet" at their home would be looking for a more general purpose filter than the government's one. A number of ISPs do offer such a service (either free or as an add-on) and it seems that they should be promoting this further.

In conclusion, it seems that the survey shows that the current government internet filter is implemented the wrong way for the wrong purpose and by the wrong people.

New Media submission opposes media regulation

Posted on March 13, 2012

Tech Liberty made a submission to the Media Regulation review run by the Law Commission. The summary of our submission is as follows:

We recognise that "big media" still has a lot of influence in New Zealand but that this influence is declining as the internet gives people the ability to:

  • self-publish ("little media")
  • share and distribute self-published articles
  • publicly critique the work of big media.

This change can be seen in the way that online media such as blogs used to be very reactive to work published in newspapers and TV, but now newspapers and TV are increasingly picking up stories from blogs and other forms of social media.

Much of the rest of the review was about how the media should be regulated but we believe that the need for greater media regulation has not been established.

Defining news media

The review suggests that regulation could be a trade-off for official recognition of news media, and spends a lot of time discussing who would be included in the definition of "news media". We believe any definition would either be so broad as to be useless or so narrow that it would miss out many people and publications that arguably should be covered. This is especially true as journalism continues to develop and change in the internet age.

Special privileges for news media

The review suggests that we need a definition because some laws refer to the news media to bestow special privileges. Our preference is that these privileges should be extended to all citizens (e.g. replace the media "fair dealing" section in the Copyright Act with a more general "fair dealing/fair use" provision for all people) or should be available to all people when they are acting as a journalist.

Furthermore, any organisation that wish to include/exclude "news media" can make their own determinations as to who that is rather then relying on a government mandated definition.

External regulation

We do not believe that there is a need for an external regulator. Indeed, as the internet gives people the means to publicly criticise the output of big media, the need for a regulator is reduced compared to the days when only a very limited number of media companies could get their views out (due to limited airwaves or the need to own a printing press).

Current regulation is also generally quite ineffectual. The original message still goes out and then any correction is ignored as the issue is no longer "news". Regulation tends to be after the fact score-keeping at best.

Any publishing company or journalist who wishes to be taken seriously has the ability to form a group and create their own code of ethics and regulator. The Press Council is an example of this and we do not see why other media groups who wish to be taken seriously could not do the same.

Finally, if there was a regulator our view was that it should be in the form of an Ombudsman with the ability to make morally rather than legally binding decisions.

Malicious speech online

The second part of the review was about harmful speech online.

We agreed that malicious speech online can be a problem just as it is when face to face Furthermore, the nature of the internet means that the malicious speech can both spread further and remain available longer.

We believe that the law is limited in what it can do about people being nasty to each other, either online or in person. Even if current law could deal with these issues, the international nature of the internet and the inevitable jurisdiction issues would mean that only a small proportion of problems could be resolved.

That said, many of the more contentious issues will be conducted by people who know each other well and probably even live in the same area. The law should be able to deal with issues of harassment using existing laws (possibly with the tweaks identified by the Commission to ensure that online communications are definitely covered).

We reject the idea that speech online should be held to a higher standard than any other form of speech.

We do support the creation of a new crime of "malicious online impersonation" with the caveat that it must be very careful not to include obvious cases of parody and other forms of non-serious impersonation.

No ISP responsibility

We oppose any attempt to make ISPs responsible for taking down or blocking information either hosted on their network or available through it. This is because ISPs typically have no visibility or control over the material that their customers might store on servers hosted with the ISP. Typically an ISP will only have one option - passing the request on to the publisher or turning off the entire site. Closing down an entire site would seem a gross over-reaction to the content of one offending post or comment.

It does seem appropriate to us that an ISP might have a responsibility to pass on a takedown message to the site owner (similar to the copyright legislation) or, upon presentation of a suitable court order, reveal the identity of the site owner so that legal action can be taken.

Kiwicon – The government is your friend

Posted on November 7, 2011

The government is your friend and wants you to be happy.

This is the transcript of a speech given by Thomas Beagle at Kiwicon in Wellington on November 6th, 2011.

Website takedowns: a followup

Posted on March 18, 2011

We recently wrote about how an offensive website was taken offline by complaints.

In particular, we talked about the tactics that were used to take them down and whether they were a good thing for the internet or not. The two tactics described were:

  1. Complaining to the ISP that the site breached their terms of service. We said this risks reducing opinion on the internet to the level of whatever a company's PR department finds acceptable.
  2. Using copyright complaints over the site's use of a photo without permission. Taking down an entire site over what is arguably a reasonable use of an image is an affront to freedom of speech and shows how dangerous these US-style shoot-first-ask-questions-later copyright laws are.

The article attracted a fair bit of comment both for and against the use of these tactics. We also received some new information and thought it was worth posting a followup.

Taking down websites you don’t agree with

Posted on February 28, 2011

This is a post about the tactics used to take down a New Zealand website hosted in the the USA and what they mean for the Internet. (Update post.)

The website

Soon after the Christchurch quake, a website (christchurchquake.net) was published that said the quake was God's punishment for Christchurch's tolerance of homosexuality, with God being especially annoyed by Gay Ski Week. The website also made a number of other very odd claims concerning a conspiracy of "Phoenician-descended swamp lesbians" headed by Helen Clark that had taken over New Zealand.

The takedown

The site is no longer available (Google cache here). This is because a number of people found the site highly offensive, and some of them decided that they would do what they could to get the site taken off the Internet.

The author of the site could not be identified so most action was aimed at getting Bluehost, a company based in the US state of Utah, to take it down. Two main tactics were employed:

Is this what the DIA filter looks like?

Posted on February 22, 2011

What we're seeing

thread over on gpforums.co.nz has discussed problems Telecom users have had accessing content delivered by various CDNs (content delivery networks - used by many sites to handle video streaming).

Network traces showed a large amount of packet loss and the path taken by the data looked a bit unusual.

This appears to be the first sign of a site being either adversely affected or actually blocked by the DIA filter. We've also had confirmation of other ISPs (Internet service providers) believed to be using the filter having access blocked.

What we believe is happening

The filter works by creating alternative routes to particular network IP addresses and passing them onto the participating ISPs. Traffic to those IP addresses is then passed to the DIA and checked by the filter to see whether it is going to the blocked site or another site on the same IP address. If it is going to a blocked site, the user is redirected to www.dce.net.nz, or else it allowed through the DIA's ISP and out onto the Internet. (Read more in our Filtering Frequently Asked Questions article.)

Inspection of the traces shows that the traffic is going through an ISP with a relationship with the Department. The address 124.150.165.62 in the traces is from that ISP. The traffic is then going out through a link that the ISP has to Australia.

This ISP's link to the Internet appears to be either under considerable pressure or is simply broken. The level of traffic being dropped by it (as reported by users and our own investigation) is likely to be degrading access significantly to any site hosted - but not actually blocked - by any IP address the DIA is wanting to inspect.

What does this mean?

The site in question hosts anime (animated video from Japan and other countries). While we believe that some anime work has been found objectionable in New Zealand, we cannot find any reference to this site being banned by the Chief Censor.

Even if one video at the site has been blocked by the DIA, this blocking appears to be generally degrading performance to other material on that site or any other site hosted by the same content delivery network.

The Department has repeatedly denied access to the filter list in the expectation that hiding the list will prevent people from accessing it. As this story illustrates, it's not difficult to uncover the filter given the effects it has on an IP address being filtered/intercepted.

We're very interested in hearing from anyone else having difficulties accessing a site where 124.150.165.62 appears in a traceroute to the site. We're particularly interested in legal content being degraded by passing through the DIA's filter.

Internet Name Suppression Workshop

Posted on February 3, 2011

InternetNZ hosted a workshop about name suppression in the digital age.

The following notes were made at the session. They give a general idea of what was discussed but should not be taken as definitive or complete.

Dear Independent Reference Group – Do Your Job

Posted on November 22, 2010

Dear Independent Reference Group,

Please do your job.

Yours, Tech Liberty


We believe that secret censorship is a threat to our democracy. We need to be careful when giving our government the ability to limit what we can see and hear - which is why we require the Chief Censor to publish their decisions. This openness, the ability for anyone to review and challenge, helps prevent abuse of the censorship scheme.

One of our objections to the government's Internet censorship filter was that the Department of Internal Affairs has refused to release the list of censored sites. They say that they'll only censor certain types of material, but how can we know that they're sticking to this without being able to see the list?

The DIA did respond to these concerns by establishing the Independent Reference Group to provide at least some semi-independent oversight of the filter, although they had to be persuaded to let the IRG have access to the list of blocked sites. Then, from the minutes of the IRG's meeting on 15th October 2010:

Members of the Group were invited to identify any website that they wish to review. They declined to do so at this stage.

Now, we quite understand that members of the IRG don't want to look at those sites. But that's not the point - they have a responsibility to ensure that the filter "...is operated with integrity and adheres to the principles set down in the Code of Practice."

This oversight isn't going to work if the IRG don't exercise it. The filter list grew from 153 entries in June to 538 in November - surely it would have made sense to have a look at the list and select some of the additions for a brief review?

Recommendation

We recommend that at each meeting the IRG should randomly select a sample of newly added sites and review the content to ensure that the filter is not being abused. Anything less is neglecting their duty.