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Writer's Block: This material has been censored [May. 17th, 2010|06:45 pm]

Do you think the government should have the right to censor the media? If you're generally against censorship, are there any circumstances under which you feel it might be warranted?

I'm generally against censorship, in a pretty big way. I'm against it from an idealistic point of view, namely free speech, which I hope doesn't need to be explained.

And from a practical point of view: one very big reason is that it's still easy for determined parties to access the material they want, especially on the internet. It just hurts those who probably have a legitimate reason for doing it.

For the purposes of this, I'm willfully ignoring media other than the Internet, as it's my little pet peeve, although I don't seek to diminish conversations about censorship in other media such as radio, TV or billboard ads (which has managed its own controversy in Ireland recently). By the way, for a bit of context: Internet censorship is being considered by the Irish Government (and with the greens having a sway, there's generally more of a chance that ill-considered, unworkable fluffy-bunny ideas coupled with the knee-jerk conservatism of Fianna Fáil will result in the manifestation of net censorship in Ireland).

For instance, imagine you have a site that's loosely related to techniques to compromise the security of a computer, and it's censored due to it containing information that may be used in illegal activities. As you can imagine, there would be several interested parties: Those who want to maliciously compromise machines for fun and profit, those who earn an honest living doing penetration testing (non-destructive testing of network security with the authorisation of the company) for companies (white-hats), and those who want to protect themselves from the latest intrusion techniques out there. Those who want to know for malicious reasons probably already know enough to circumvent said censorship. Similarly, the white-hats will know how to as well, although it puts them in a grey legal footing if they do so; depending on how rigourously the censorship is enforced, there could be a major legal impediment to accessing this information. That puts the good guys at a disadvantage, because they either have to tie their own hands when it comes to doing their job effectively, or break the law in order to protect people. Needless to say Random J. User is screwed, they just have to hope that the latest release of their intrusion protection software can handle it. But, chances are, the whitehats are writing it, so their hands are tied.

Another one likely to be hit would be drugs information sites, like erowid, probably on the basis that it encourages illegal drug use. Technically that would be true, but the main point of it is to encourage safe drug use, providing details on safe dosages of substances and so forth. So, instead you have kids making uninformed choices about the dosage of a drug, which could be fatal. What's the solution? Probably "make the censorship tigher, these drug sites are giving kids ideas".

Both may seem unlikely, but are plausible because it's very likely that the person/people making the list of things to be banned isn't going to look too hard. They'll see "hacking" or "drugs/narcotics" in a list of keywords for that site, and probably won't investigate any further.

The other problem is that it may be seen as a way to cut down on the associated activities, but I find it unlikely that those solutions would work, they only hide what's out there, and there will always be ways to find it. Besides, cracking down on a drug information site doesn't stop the drug trade in Ireland. Cracking down on grey-looking security sites doesn't crack down on security problems. In both cases, it stops the user making an informed choice.

Even when you consider the big, bad censorship equivalent of Godwin's law, child pornography (which I don't mean to belittle, as it is genuinely a horrible thing), it still doesn't stop the abuse of the children to produce those images. Besides, how often do you get to censor that if you don't know where it is? Chances are, if authorities know where that site is, they're already trying to break down the doors of the host, get the plug pulled, and the offenders in jail. They're not going to just block the site and say, "It's ok now, the general public can't see it."

My other concern is the expense. It depends on how active you want the censorship to be. If you want just a simple black-list, blocking sites that do not match what the government wants you to see (homework: Which government blocked access to the website of the opposition party? Hint: It wasn't China), then it's relatively cheap. If you want to scan for people who may be trying to work around your censorship, then it gets expensive, because you have to start monitoring and logging every connection that's made. If you try to expand your blacklist based on hits from people who've already tried to hit something on your blacklist, then things could get weird; not only is it expensive, but you start running the risk of falsely accusing someone of being a terrible person, possibly because they followed a link from a forum. Or you could start blocking things that may be completely unrelated.

The worst argument about net censorship is that it is, by-and-large, a 'pull technology'. Unless you're linked to something in forum, blog or social networking site, you're probably not going to see something unless you seek it out. So, assuming a low inclination for people to seek out illegal information, how much safer does censorship make the population than before? How much does it hinder those who want to get around it? How likely is it to cause a market for a new type of crime, working around these measures?

In short, there are all manners of ways in which this turns into a big mess. For me, I believe the acid test will be how Australia get on with their attempts to censor the internet. My bet is that it's just going to make things awkward for legitimate users, while doing nothing to curb illegal activity, possibly creating avenues for more.