Do web filters hinder free speech?

Online advocacy groups say government “blacklists” lack independent oversight.

australia internet computers
Most filtering technologies in the West target child pornography websites, but there are fears they could also be used to block access to legal, yet controversial sites [EPA]

Internet filtering has been a standard tool for fighting unwanted online content for more than a decade. However, the debate over its legitimacy and effectiveness continues to rage, pitting politicians and regulators against technologists and free speech advocates. 

From China, where activists fight against the country’s “Great Firewall”, to the US, where Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, recently promised to bring an Internet freedom agenda to the forefront of politics, discourse around filtering has reached a fever pitch.

Once the domain of repressive regimes, Internet filtering has begun to make inroads in the West, with several countries harbouring secret blacklists, and still others weighing the practicalities and legal constraints of filtering.

Australia is one such country with intent to filter. The country’s original filtering ideals – to provide opt-in filtering software families – changed drastically with the Labour Government’s election success in November 2007.

Soon thereafter, Stephen Conroy, the minister for telecommunications, announced plans for a layered filtering scheme to be implemented by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

This included a mandatory filter to block illegal content and an opt-out filter geared toward families that would block they deemed in appropriate. 

Mandatory blacklists

The mandatory blacklists would contain not only child pornography, but also potentially any content dealing with instruction in crime, drug use, or euthanasia, among other topics. 

The filter would be administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), a government body instituted in 2005 for the purpose of regulating the country’s media. The ACMA will thus be responsible for determining what constitutes illegal content and what does not.

The filtering scheme has been met with fierce opposition from a number of groups in Australia, most notably Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), whose Open Internet campaign seeks to educate the public about the drawbacks associated with filtering.

They say the filter’s limitations include lack of transparency and independent oversight; no due process for determining what belongs on the blacklist; and the outsourcing of regulatory decisions to software makers and automated tools.  

Colin Jacobs, a board member of the EFA, says liberties may be at stake.

“Given its ineffectiveness and the risks posed to freedom of speech by the installation of a government-controlled censorship scheme, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which we could get behind a filter even if it was aimed solely at illegal material,” he said.

Opponents of the filter have another good reason to be concerned: a recent leak of the current ACMA blacklist showed that included among the database of illegal content were sites about gambling and euthanasia, as well as hundreds of legal but controversial sites.

In response, the ACMA says they have “taken a number of steps to improve the security of the existing URL list and its provision to filter software providers under the current regulatory process”.

There are also concerns that the filter is circumvented too easily, calling into question its effectiveness in protecting children from illegal content. 

Battling circumvention software

Although the proposed Australian filtering scheme would be by far the most comprehensive in the West, it is not the only one.

Norway, Finland, the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands, for example, all block certain sites deemed to host child pornography. 

While the cost and scope of these filters are minimal, so is the actual impact in fighting the problem of child pornography, which is still accessible beyond those countries’ borders or by using circumvention software.

Nevertheless, other European countries have recently implemented even more intrusive filtering systems. 

In February, the French parliament passed a security bill known as LOPPSI 2, which includes among other things a requirement that ISPs censor sites on a government blacklist. 

Just last week, the UK passed the Digital Economy Bill, which would allow UK courts to complete blocks on Web sites on the basis of copyright infringement, as well as disconnect Internet users for repeated copyright offences. 

Like Australia’s filtering scheme, both bills have seen strong opposition from constituents.

Across the Atlantic, the political impetus to institute filtering has been strong. In the late 1990s, the US Congress twice passed legislation attempting to impose mandatory filtering under the auspices of protecting children from harmful Internet content.

However, in both cases US courts struck down the legislation as unnecessarily infringing on free speech.

A third attempt settled on a less invasive version that was able to survive judicial scrutiny: US schools and libraries which receive federal funding are required to filter.

A slippery slope

In China, filters are extensively used to censor sexual and political content

The social filtering schemes under consideration by the governments of Australia, the UK, and other Western nations differ considerably in scope from filtering in countries with more repressive media environments.

China and Iran, for example, heavily filter not only social content (such as sites containing pornography, or information about gambling or sexuality) but also political content.

Every filtering program proposed in a Western nation has thus far targeted extreme and child pornography or copyright infringement. 

While a direct assault on political discourse in these countries seems unlikely, many critics see the implementation of any filtering system as a slippery slope.

Once the technical and procedural mechanisms for carrying out filtering are in place, filtering may be expanded and misused, particularly where oversight is scant. 

Add to that a lack of transparency by organisations such as Australia’s ACMA or the UK’s non-governmental Internet Watch Foundation, and the potential for abuse increases.

Future of filtering

Many who celebrate the Internet as a bastion of free speech look to the recent developments in Australia, France and the UK with great trepidation.

It is worth mentioning that never before has such an aggressive national-level filtering scheme survived both the political debate and judicial review in a western nation –

While Australia may be the canary in a coal mine, the filtering plans of some Western nations offers the practise of filtering a new-found legitimacy and provides political cover for censors around the world, including those in Beijing and Tehran.

Robert Faris is the Research Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. His recent research includes Internet content regulation, state censorship and surveillance practices, broadband and infrastructure policy, and the interaction of new media, online speech, government regulation of the Internet and political processes.

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy

Source: Al Jazeera