Monday, 16 June 2014

Net Neutrality

Recently there has been a lot of noise about Net Neutrality. It is one of the few politically charged discussions that I actually care about.

There are lots of good reasons to keep net neutrality around, and to preserve the lack of censorship on the Internet from government bodies. There are lots of good reasons, from the perspective of governments and internet service providers to destroy it. The ability to convey information is power. The Internet is the pen of today. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the Internet is mightier than Fat Man.

Recently in Europe, the UK has decided to fight the EU's propositions to conserve Net Neutrality. The UK government has taken the reactionary stance of "what about the children!?" and it's ridiculous.

The two main points which are being made are:

1: We need the power to block websites to help parents and stop children from viewing inappropriate content!
Let me be extremely clear here. There is no reason what so ever that such filtering needs to be done at the ISP level. In fact, I would argue that this is extremely poor infrastructure design, as if people want to filter different content, they should be free to decide what content is filtered. It would be better to do filtering at the home network level, potentially with support from the ISP to set that up. The filtering could then be customised per user. This would really help parents, rather than assuming that the government knows best.

2: We need to block child pornography!
Let's look at what this proposes to do. It tries to very indirectly reduce the amount of child abuse – the argument here being supply and demand – people demand it and the easiest way is to supply it over the Web. So lawmakers have decided that blocking child pornography at the ISP level is the most effective way of breaking that supply, and so hopefully the amount of child abuse related to producing such material should go down. There are a number of flaws, though.

  • Since the demand is now there, people will still find a way to supply it, whether that supply happens over the web or not.

  • Even if you block this material, your filtering is unlikely to be 100% accurate. People will still find some
    • Worryingly, this is likely to be the most recent content which has not been added to the ISP's filtering list. There is sadly no guarantee that this will even reduce related child abuse.
  • Proxies. Again.
  • Traceability of material is still not affected meaningfully. People could still exchange such materials; compressed, encrypted images and videos as anything. You could easily encode such data as a bunch of random words chosen from the x most frequently used English words.
So unfortunately we're left with the situation whereby you either have to pare down the internet to some shell of itself to enforce any of what Net Neutrality opponents suggest is necessary.
It's sort of insulting to everybody's intelligence to suggest that eroding net neutrality in this way is at all likely to reduce child abuse in any meaningful way and is highly manipulative in that it tries to form the implication that if you don't agree with the UK government on this front, that you have no empathy for children or some bullshit like that. Unfortunately, we only have the ability to protect children on our own soil. There is no magic wand we can wave to end child abuse in other countries. There is no joining of hands, singing of songs and gently eroding our civil liberties that will change that.

The worrying thing to me is that despite all of this, the people who make these “child friendly” assertions are likely to be completely aware of how impotent their proposals are. This should be raising some eyebrows about what their aims actually are and how them coming to fruition will affect us further down the line. We cannot exchange our civil liberties for a false silver bullet.

So what do we do?
For self styled techno-geek people like myself, I think the best thing we can do is be concrete. Words are cheap. If we can come up with demos and point at real technologies which are better alternatives or illustrate how ridiculous a proposal is, then we take away anybody's ability to legitimately argue to the contrary. So maybe future blog posts will feature quotes from politicians and Net Neutrality opponents, along with a piece of technology that renders their point moot.

And yes, this post does not even begin to go into traffic shaping. Maybe I'll talk about that another time, but I wanted to focus on censorship and why the government's claim to that power in regards to the Internet is absurd.

Anyway, what do you think? Let me know!

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