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

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?

21 thoughts on “Te Papa doesn’t know why it’s censoring the internet”

  1. Te Papa is providing free internet access to visitors, and like most free internet providers, we utilise Internet filtering to limit access to sites. In this instance overly aggressive filtering resulted in a reasonable site being blocked, so we have relaxed the level of WiFi filtering to focus on blocking illegal content. Te Papa plans to continue to tune it’s WiFi filtering until a reasonable balance between open and filtered access is achieved.

    We have spoken with the tourist you mention, and he was happy with the explanation and solution provided.

    If visitors find that they have a problem accessing what they consider to be an appropriate website, they can log this by emailing Te Papa at mail@tepapa.govt.nz

    1. But why have you limited access to sites? Your answer mentions “illegal content” – does this mean that you think Te Papa would be liable if anyone accessed illegal content over the free wifi?

      If so, how sure are you that the filter has blocked access to *all* illegal content? After all, if you think you’re responsible and you then miss some – well, you’d be breaking the law too.

      How do you define illegal? Does it include any sites with, for example, illegal information about methods of euthanasia? (As the censor recently banned Philip Nitschke’s book for that reason.) Who is making that judgement and on what grounds?

      I’m also still very doubtful about the use of any software that is incompetent enough to identify a German political site as Japanese pornography.

    2. “We have spoken with the tourist you mention, and he was happy with
      the explanation and solution provided.”

      Well, sorry, not entirely correct.

      First, I had a talk with a technician, who agreed that web filters do
      not hinder evildoers in pursuing their malpractice, so are a nuisance
      rather than practical.

      Second, the blocking was still in place the next day, it seems to be
      changing by time.

      Third, the mail I have sent to Te Papa in this respect was solely
      answered by a rather short reply: “Thank you for your e mail which has
      been forwarded to the relevant department.”

      So I would not talk about a “solution” here, and not about “happy”.

      I’ve left Wellington by now, and I certainly don’t give a flying toss
      whether you take down all of Wellingtons internet. I’m just concerned
      about the society you are forming: Uneducated, gullibe consumers
      instead of mindful, cultured citizens.

    3. Hi Neil
      Long time, no see. Thanks for showing up and commenting.

      I must have missed the section of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 that defined all Japanese and Portuguese pornography as illegal. ;-) I think it’s worth pointing out that the OFLC is the only body permitted to declare that content is illegal – individual companies can make decisions that they do not wish to give access to certain websites, but they cannot excuse their decisions on the basis that “it is illegal” unless it actually is.

      Can you advise what the criteria are that Te Papa is using to classify material or websites as “illegal”? I’d also be interested in reading the policy documents that your board must have considered in implementing this strategy. You can send them to mark (at) tracs dot co dot nz – I don’t need the physical copies. You can also consider this an OIA request. I’ll be sending it to your own email addresses as well.


      Mark Harris

  2. Thomas:
    I imagine that any blocks on euthanasia and assisted suicide practise would be theoretically illegal under the relevant sections of the Crimes Act, which is the criteria that the OFLC used when dealing with related print media.

    I hope that Te Papa has not blocked access to non-sexual LGBT websites, as occurred with one Palmerston North drop-in venue and MacDonald’s wifi service. This could potentially be in transgression of the relevant Human Rights Act provisions.

  3. Uhm I’ve looked at that site and while the content isn’t interesting to me it’s not offensive either. No images for starters, lust left-ish politics stuff.

    So I presume someone random employed by some random filter vendor didn’t like left-ish politcal content and te papa uses that for no reason and they’re feeling warm and fuzzy about it.

    Neil Cowley, I presume you just unblocked the site(s) that were complained about and went back to the coffee machine. You could instead have explained the legal basis for what you do in your day job but haven’t.

  4. “Are they worried that people will somehow download banned material? It’s not their responsibility” it is their responsibility. If someone downloads copyrighted items, it is Te Papa that will get fined or have their internet connection cut off. Just read the legislation on this before making stupid statements, read and understand the law.

    1. The content filter only applies to web content which is, according to most opinion, not covered by the provisions of the recent Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Bill. (We also mentioned that they technically block peer to peer file sharing and we have no objection to this.) I note that we disagree with this law and oppose ISP liability for the actions of their users.

      With this type of peer to peer sharing of infringing files removed from the equation, any fear of illegal materials could only refer to other copyrighted material or content banned under our censorship laws. In these cases the law and our opinion coincides, with ISPs and other internet providers having no liability for material accessed by their users.

  5. Also a business that is offering free (or even paid) internet connections, has the right to block what ever they want to. It is their property anyway and you do not have to use it, you can go somewhere else. Same with cafes, if their free internet blocks certain sites, go somewhere else. These places have the full legal right to decide what it accessed and what is not. Te Papa could block access to everything except their own web site if they want. It has nothing to do with human rights. Just the same as you can block what ever sites you want on your home network and not be violating the human rights of your visitors. There is no law (human rights or otherwise) that states you (or any business) have to all web sites of all sorts available to anyone that uses your network.

    1. “Also a business that is offering free (or even paid) internet
      connections, has the right to block what ever they want to.”

      Would you accept Telecom to allow you to call only certain people on
      the phone? Without telling you the list of people you may call, of

      Would it be ok if NZ post would deliver letters only to you, if they
      were sent by someone who has a high score? Without telling anybody
      how this score is calculated, of course.

      Also, I’d rather see Te Papa as an educational institution, than as a

      “go somewhere else”

      Can I go somewhere else? Libraries are blocking too, also in a rather
      crude way. And if I can in one place access the content that is
      blocked in another place, then what is the protection a filter offers?

      “These places have the full legal right to decide what it accessed and
      what is not.”

      Maybe. So what? Erratic legislation cannot be used as an argument to
      justify itself.

    2. Te Papa are not a business, they are a government funded body. Because they are a museum and therefore have some commitment to truth and education, we believe their censorship is particularly unfortunate.

    3. “These places have the full legal right to decide…”

      Having a right to do something does not mean that is is right to do it.

  6. They are using DansGuardian which is a nice little open source filter that can do phrase and keyword scoring and much like your email spam filter it sometimes gets things wrong.

    Filtering the Internet for adults is plain wrong. But in a public space I can understand if an organisation is sensitive about blocking content that might be accessed by kids.

    DansGuardian isn’t like the nasty American filters we have in most Australian schools which have been tailored to the US religious right and are really imposing another countries political opinions. I have used DansGuardian in the past in primary schools as it blocks a lot of porn sites based on the 18yo age record keeping boilerplate many porn sites have while the much more biased and extreme US based filter often let them through due to being hopelessly out of date.

    Unfortunately in this case it has probably picked up on some German word or phrase that is similar to something it associates with Japanese porn.

  7. It’s a free service in a museum, which, unlike many other similar government funded instutions worldwide, is free itself. Quit whinging.

    1. It’s government funded – which means we’re paying for it. I don’t want my government to be supporting foolish internet censorship.

      1. I don’t want the Government to block (or monitor, log, intercept without proof of wrong doing and a court order) or force providers to block Internet provided to fee paying customers especially those above voting age. That is anti-democratic and a diminishes our rights as individuals. Really dangerous and deluded stuff.

        I totally respect the right of organisations to decide to filter especially if they are providing a free public service in a place frequented by minors. Especially since some crazy with a grudge might use it to discredit them.

        I also respect the right of employers to do it though they mark themselves as dicks for doing so in my opinion.

        I think this is a beatup and a distraction from bigger issues.

  8. Here’s the problem that I have with inhouse filters. The one that MacDonalds uses on its wifi network provides discriminatory service blockage to lesbian and gay information-based websites, such as those that deal with youth suicide issues. New Zealand’s Human Rights Act expressly forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in terms of accomodation, employment, goods and service provision- with no exception for Internet service providers. Some fundamentalist Christian filters maliciously block nonsexual lesbian and gay websites but not antigay ones. Incidentally, German Tourist, it is also illegal to discriminate on the basis of political opinion in NZ, which would include your political party websites.

  9. Dear Mark

    I am writing in response to your post of 6 May 2012 in which you sought information under the Official Information Act 1982. I have emailed you a response, but thought that as you published your request here, others on the forum would appreciate this information as well.

    Our ISP TelstraClear, along with other major internet service providers such as Telecom, Vodafone and 2 Degrees uses filters based on the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System which targets websites that host child sexual abuse images.


    I see that you are listed as being on the Independent Reference group for this DIA Filtering System and therefore will be familiar with it.

    As a government entity, Te Papa follows government technology standards as policy; therefore this did not require a Board decision.

    The website in question was not being blocked intentionally by Te Papa as illegal content. The content filtering software used by Te Papa incorrectly rated this website as having Japanese pornographic content. Once brought to Te Papa’s attention the filtering was modified to allow this. As our earlier response noted, we still are fine-tuning the WiFi filtering.

    “In this instance overly aggressive filtering resulted in a reasonable site being blocked, so we have relaxed the level of WiFi filtering to focus on blocking illegal content. Te Papa plans to continue to tune its WiFi filtering until a reasonable balance between open and filtered access is achieved”

    Regards, Neil Cowley
    Manager Information Technology and Development
    Te Papa

    1. Neil, you seem to have confused the DIA’s filter (which is focused on blocking websites with child pornography) and the filter being used at Te Papa which apparently blocks a much wider range of content.

      On what basis do you think that the government mandates the use of the DIA’s filter in government entities? Are you just making this up?

      I also note that you did not answer Mark’s question about how Te Papa chooses which websites to block (“classifiy as illegal”).

    2. Do you see what has happened? I had to expose myself to your staff in a quite public environment. I had to talk about what content I want to access, and defend myself against the indirect accusation of accessing porn.

      Assume I was somebody else, not trying to access the site of a political party in Germany, but instead seek medical advice about this embarassing rash on my butt. Or about my drug problem. Do you think I would have gone to comparable lengths?

      Certainly not. I claim, that just having a means to appeal against unjust censoring does not mean at all that this will happen. On the contrary, very important information will become inaccessible, just because nobody dares to ask.

      History comes with plenty of examples, think about the “good” old times when it was a taboo to talk about sex and contraception. Consider the spreading of AIDS in countries where the facts of life are not taught at scool.

      Another one: It is claimed quite often that websites spreading or arousing hatred should be banned (Nazis in Germany). Recently I became involved in a discussion about a group in Germany I have not heared of before. If access to their websites would have been blocked, I would not have been able to get an idea of them, and I would not have been able to argue against their claims.

      One more example: I’m taking on the devil’s advocate role here, by claiming that there is no child abuse on the internet. It’s all just a big lie. And if the filtering works properly, nobody can prove me wrong.

      Without filtering however, authorities would be actually forced to find the servers hosting that clearly illegal stuff, take them down, and catch the villians. This needs to happen in an international effort, which of course requires multilateral negotiation. Hence, filtering actually protects the felony of child abuse. And it proves that our polititians (and yours) don’t care enough about the kids to actually really protect them.

  10. Japanese: “Rechtsterrorismus” contains “rori” (lolita)
    Portugese: “computation” contains “puta” (whore)

    So maybe they’re using crude wildcard-matching with some very short words.

    I’m reminded of spam filters that won’t let you say “specialist” or “socialism” because they contain the word “cialis”.

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