Internet filter sparks outrage

By Simon Hendery

The Government is spending $150,000 on website "filtering" software, outraging some bloggers who say the move amounts to censorship of the internet.

Since 2007 the Department of Internal Affairs' Censorship Compliance Unit has worked with a small group of internet service providers on a "trial" project to block access to websites distributing child pornography.

The project, using hardware and software supplied by a Swedish technology company, thwarts access to more than 7000 websites known to offer child sexual abuse material.

If computer users subscribed to the ISPs involved in the trial - which now include TelstraClear, ihug, Watchdog and Maxnet - attempt to access sites on the DIA's blacklist they are re-directed to a message explaining the site has been blocked.

Until now the DIA's filtering project has been run on a shoestring Budget of $2000 or $3000 a year, but the department won $150,000 in this year's Budget to buy software to expand the system beyond a trial. The money was part of a $661,000 Budget increase for "censorship enforcement activity".

In a letter to Wellington blogger Thomas Beagle, Censorship Compliance Unit manager Steve O'Brien said because New Zealand's censorship legislation - the Film, Videos and Publications Classification Act - contained no specific authority for website filtering, ISPs' participation in the trial had been voluntary.

O'Brien said the country's largest ISP, Telecom, along with ihug owner Vodafone, had "expressed their willingness to participate" in the expanded programme.

In his blog, Beagle wrote he was concerned there was no "external oversight" of websites added to the department's blacklist.

"It is being implemented in a very 'under the radar' way so as to avoid the fuss that has been raised in other countries such as Australia," he said.

"If we are going to implement internet filtering I believe it should be done openly and through law."

Beagle also said the filtering scheme was not very effective because it relied on DIA staff manually adding websites to be filtered and it was "relatively easy for motivated users to circumvent" the filtering process.

Mauricio Freitas, the Wellington-based founder of popular technology website Geekzone, also blogged about his concerns there was no oversight to the filtering process, meaning it could be extended beyond blocking child porn sites.

"[T]here isn't a publicly available list of blacklisted websites, and no guarantees that a secret meeting between government agencies wouldn't in the future add other 'categories' to this list," he said.

Moves to make internet filtering compulsory in Australia have caused a storm of protest with proponents making similar claims that the process was about more than blocking Australians' access to child pornography.

Across the Tasman the Federal Government said last year it would spend $42 million on an internet filtering programme that would be compulsory for all ISPs. But the scheme was ridiculed when leaked lists purportedly containing the Government's banned sites were found to include innocuous web addresses, including one for a Brisbane dentist.

In its statement of intent for 2009 to 2012, the DIA says the aim of its website filtering work is "to assist in preventing New Zealanders from gaining access to websites containing objectionable material".

"This will restrict website hits and ... diminish revenue to criminals."

MONITORING WEB
* New Zealand's website-filtering initiative is nothing compared to the efforts of the Chinese Government, which has spent billions of dollars over the past decade on its "Golden Shield Project," a censorship and surveillance technology programme often dubbed the "Great Firewall of China".
* Golden Shield is a highly effective system for blocking websites Chinese authorities don't want citizens to access.
* A small window was opened in the Great Firewall last year when China allowed uncensored access to the internet from some locations in a bid to appease journalists and other international visitors attending the Olympic Games in Beijing.
* Iran has similar censorship and surveillance technology which has been used by authorities to thwart protesters' attempts to disseminate information.

- NZ Herald

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