The Great Firewall of Canada
The title of this article is, of course, a reference to the Internet censorship that is rampant in China.
Mark Goldberg pointed me to the press release of “Project Cleanfeed Canada”. Canadian carriers Bell Aliant, Bell Canada, MTS Allstream, Rogers, SaskTel, Shaw, TELUS, and Videotron have all opted in to a blacklist provided by Cybertip.ca, the Canadian tip-line against child exploitation. Mark is an advocate of putting censorship in place against websites that would be deemed illegal by Canadian Law (such as those promoting hate speech or sexually exploiting children).
I first came across Mark’s website when he was filing an application requesting the CRTC to authorize Canadian carriers to block internet content. I morally support blocking hate speech and child porn (who wouldn’t?), but the idea of having a national blacklist sends shivers down my spine. I would always prefer that illegal websites be shutdown rather than putting into power national filters that have the potential to be abused. I’m a pessimist, I believe that any form of censorship will eventually be abused despite its good intentions.
Nart Villeneuve has an excellent article that sums up my fear of government sponsored filters:
“Increasingly, states are adopting practices aimed at regulating and controlling the Internet as it passes through their borders. Seeking to assert information sovereignty over their cyber–territory, governments are implementing Internet content filtering technology at the national level. The implementation of national filtering is most often conducted in secrecy and lacks openness, transparency, and accountability. Policy–makers are seemingly unaware of significant unintended consequences, such as the blocking of content that was never intended to be blocked.
Once a national filtering system is in place, governments may be tempted to use it as a tool of political censorship or as a technological “quick fix” to problems that stem from larger social and political issues. As non–transparent filtering practices meld into forms of censorship the effect on democratic practices and the open character of the Internet are discernible. States are increasingly using Internet filtering to control the environment of political speech in fundamental opposition to civil liberties, freedom of speech, and free expression. The consequences of political filtering directly impact democratic practices and can be considered a violation of human rights.”
Project Cleanfeed Canada is an offshoot of Project Cleanfeed UK. From the Wikipedia entry on Internet Censorship:
“United Kingdom set a deadline of the end of 2007 for all ISPs to implement a “Cleanfeed”-style network level content blocking platform. Currently, the only web sites ISPs are expected to block access to are sites the Internet Watch Foundation has identified as containing images of child abuse. However such a platform is capable of blocking access to any web site added to the list (at least, to the extent that the implementation is effective), making it a simple matter to change this policy in future. The Home Office has previously indicated that it has considered requiring ISPs to block access to articles on the web deemed to be “glorifying terrorism”, within the meaning of the new Terrorism Act 2006.”
Cybertip.ca has been in operation for four years and has led to 20 arrests and 1100 websites being shutdown. From their website:
“Cybertip.ca content analysts review, prioritize and analyze every report they receive. After the report has been reviewed, the content analysts verify the report by collecting supporting information using various Internet tools and techniques. If the web site or other subject matter in question is assessed to contain potentially illegal material, a report is referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Cybertip.ca also gathers critical statistics and information for use by law enforcement and in public policy development.
If the subject matter of the report falls outside of Cybertip.ca’s mandate or is assessed to be legal, although perhaps offensive in nature, Cybertip.ca provides Internet safety information to the complainant.”
That’s fine by me. From the Internet Watch Foundation / BT Project Cleanfeed website:
“We believe that everyone is entitled to an abuse free online environment. Our child abuse image database contains details of websites, which if knowingly accessed by UK consumers could lead to them committing criminal offences under UK law. By preventing access to that content, BT are protecting their services and their customers.” – Peter Robbins, CEO, IWF
If the definition of what is blacklisted is limited to “websites which if knowingly accessed by customers could lead to them committing criminal offence”, then I have no issue with it.
What I am afraid of is:
- The list of blocked website will remain secret.
- There will be no way for a site to find out if they’re on the list.
- There will be no way for a user to find out they’ve encountered the list.
- There won’t be watchdogs in place to check what is added to the list.
- Sites will be added to the list without a proper investigation.
If the list is limited to websites that have been deemed illegal after proper legal investigation – websites where the operators would be jailed if they were operated within Canadian jurisdiction – then I have no strong argument against this. My concern is that won’t be the case. From the Wikipedia censorware page:
Frequent subjects of content-control software include web sites that, according to the company providing the control, are alleged to:
- Include illegal content with reference to the legal domain being served by that company.
- Promote, enable, or discuss hacking, software piracy, criminal skills, or other potentially illegal acts.
- Include sexually explicit content, such as pornography, erotica, and non-erotic discussions of sexual topics such as sexuality or human reproduction.
- Promote, enable, or discuss lifestyles which some might consider immoral, including promiscuity, sexual orientations other than heterosexuality, or other alternative lifestyles or sexual activity outside of marriage.
- Contain violence or other forms of graphic or “extreme” content.
- Promote, enable, or discuss bigotry or hate speech.
- Promote, enable, or discuss gambling, recreational drug use, alcohol, or other activities frequently considered to be vice.
- Are unlikely to be related to a student’s studies, an employee’s job function, or other tasks for which the computer in question may be intended.
- Are contrary to the interests of the authority in question, such as web sites promoting organized labor or criticizing a particular company or industry.
- Promote or discuss politics, religion, or other topics.
- Include social networking opportunities that might expose children to predators.
Blocking MySpace on a national level? Maybe I should reconsider my stance. :)
Michael Geist sums up the issue more eloquently than I ever could:
“[T]here is likely wide agreement that Canada must begin to grapple with the Internet challenge of balancing free speech rights with rules that outlaw certain forms of speech that have been judged harmful to our multicultural society.
A policy framework that addresses these competing goals would likely include complaints mechanisms, a presumption that the content is lawful and must be disproved by a high standard of evidence, an opportunity to challenge blocking requests, appropriate judicial oversight, and full transparency about blocking activities. The job is not the CRTC’s alone – law enforcement and the judiciary must surely be involved in the process of determining what may constitute unlawful content and the remedies that follow – but the regulator can assist in the process.
Critics are quick to draw parallels to Internet censorship in countries such as China. However, those countries involve state-based content blocking, with no transparency or legal recourse. In fact, several democracies – most notably Australia – have established limited blocking rules, while British Telecom, the UK’s largest ISP, voluntarily blocks child pornography as part of its CleanFeed program.
Even with various legal safeguards, many Canadians would undoubtedly find the blocking of any content distasteful. Yet to do nothing is to leave in place an equally unpalatable outcome that silences those would speak out against unlawful hate speech for fear of personal harm.”
Continued in Project Cleanfeed Canada
- My series on Internet anonymity (part 1, part 2, part 3)
- (very, very loosely related)
- Bill Thompson’s take on Project Cleanfeed UK @ BBC News Technology
- Same arguments, but written better
- The Censorware Project: exposing the secrets of censorware
- Seth Finkelstein’s Anticensorware Investigations (his blog)
- Micheal Geist’s blog on law and technology
UPDATE 2006/11/24: Italicized the quotes since the blockquote tag isn’t obvious using this theme.