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The devil within

By Rosie Williams - posted Friday, 30 January 2009

The internet was originally developed as a military communications system, purposely designed so that information could be re-routed around any blockage or breakdown. It is this flexibility which is the both the strength of the system and its Achilles heel when managing digital communication.

Mandatory ISP content filtering is a multidimensional issue touching on many of the most difficult questions of society. Whether it is determining where society should draw the balance between an individual’s right to access adult material and the protection of community standards or how much control should be given to the government over communications and media, the answers are fraught with debate.

This does not necessarily imply a crisis but an opportunity for many of us to seriously consider, perhaps for the fist time, the important issues of freedom of speech and ethical concerns about the dark underbelly of digital communication.


Yet the current debate surrounding the government’s mandatory ISP-level filtering is notable in its superficiality. Technology lovers claim that the conservative Christians and child advocates are creating a moral panic while they themselves try to convince us that filtering the internet will turn our democratic government into an Orwellian monster despite our constitutional protection of political speech (Jordan 2002).

Many people following the issue appear to believe that the filters will have the problems associated with key-word filtering whereas both levels of the filter will be based on sites classified as prohibited content by ACMA (DLC forum). Innocent sites can not therefore “accidentally” end up on an ACMA blacklist.

Advocates of the filter paint anyone who opposes it as a potential child abuser while not acknowledging the serious deficiencies in the state of the technology requiring development to address their own concerns (ABC 2008). Some claim that mandatory filtering will foster a false sense of security in parents (Sydney Morning Herald 2009). To many, child pornography is not an issue to be solved with technology even though technology has played a principal role in its proliferation. A standard line of argument is that access to child or other pornography is a social problem to be solved with old fashioned policing, parenting and education. Many opposing the filter have claimed that filtering the internet will not address child porn because it is primarily found on networks other than internet web sites.

As for establishing the primary channels of child pornography, the UK Internet Watch Foundation (2007), an organisation which tracks illicit material on the internet states that 80 per cent of approximately 3,000 child pornography domains identified world wide are commercial porn sites and that this number has been stable over recent years. The IWF states that Peer-to-Peer networks are “outside of our current remit” (Corporate Plan 2005-07) yet this technology was considered to be the source of an explosion in child abuse victims and imagery as long ago as 2004 (The Guardian).

Many opposing the filter have claimed that filtering the internet will not address child porn because it is primarily found on networks other than the internet, such as Peer-to-Peer. Yet few articles have attempted to explain the nuts and bolts of how this works to enable the public to understand their point. By way of explanation, there are different ways computers can connect and transfer information including the Internet, email, chat programs, usenet groups, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Virtual Private Networks (VPN), and Peer-to-Peer file sharing (P2P).

If we think of these mechanisms as the roads and the data we send and receive as the traffic we can understand that there are many routes for digital information to travel from one computer to another. The HTTP port which we use to access web sites is only one of over 65,000 ports (or roadways) which can exist on every computer. Only a handful of these ports are ever active with a small number designated for specific uses. The HTTP port is one of them. It is because we all use the same port (port 80) that we can find web pages as this port is set aside specifically for web traffic. Email which we are all familiar with is sent through a different port (e.g. port 110) so does not travel the same route as web page data. An internet filter only looks at data flowing through port 80, not at email, usenet groups, chat or P2P.


The software that runs Peer-to-Peer applications can be rewritten any number of times to change the port number used to transfer data and web sites which hold illegal material can be moved any number of times to evade detection. Additionally, individual internet users can encrypt their internet traffic and this is actually a good practice to secure personal information from interception by criminal hackers. The internet filter technology that has been described by the government is not able to break this encryption and so the filters can not detect the pages (even on port 80) accessed by that particular user.

The same technology which is used by the government is also available to everyday users and getting the upper hand is only ever temporary: our own strength becomes our weakness. This is because the encryption is government standard and so the problem that is the policing of digital communications comes full circle - like a dog chasing its own tail.

The solution to this problem is probably the most difficult but also the most important that this debate has raised. When all is said and done about the need to protect political rights from censorship it would be a shocking irony if the system developed for the protection of the US and its allies went down in history as the largest propagator of crimes against the most innocent of lives known to humanity.

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Rosie Williams is the founder of which tracks government grants.

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