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The New Zealand DIA Internet filter status

By Mauricio Freitas, in , posted: 7-Jan-2012 11:07

Remember back in 2009 there was some discussion about New Zealand government giving the DIA powers to maintain an Internet and Website Filter (Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System) containing a list of pages that should not be accessed by New Zealanders because of their child exploitation-related contents?

I have been reading some of the committee reports and this is a summary. Note the highlights will appear in order of most recent reports to the oldest ones, and of course you should read the links to have the full picture.

The filter itself is optional to ISPs, but once an ISP decided to use the filter then all its customers would be automatically included - it's not optional for customers. Currently the following ISPs are using the filter:

  • Airnet
  • Maxnet
  • Telecom New Zealand
  • TelstraClear
  • Vodafone
  • Watchdog
  • Xtreme Networks

I am reading the latest briefing document (December 2011) and it gives us some interesting data to date:

  • seven ISPs
  • 16.1 million requests blocked
  • 415 records in the filter list
  • 368 unique web sites
  • 25 appeals.

Going through some meeting minutes I found that one of the committee members objected to the reported number of blocked requested being technically correct but too high. To be fair, as per the minutes, this is number of requests, not number of page views. Remember a web page can be made up of many items to be downloaded, hundreds even.

Reading the minutes of March 2011 we  find out that the DIA isn't only involved in filtering but actively working in identifying people trading this material over peer-to-peer networks, as found in the minutes of this meeting:

Officials demonstrated software that had been developed in-house for the easy identification of IP addresses trading child sexual abuse images over peer-to-peer networks. This tool has been translated and made available to enforcement agencies in over 20 countries.

I see one of the committee members commented on the Australian filter list and shared fears of political interference in some cases:

The Group noted that following the elections in Australia, the implementation of a compulsory filter is back on the agenda with a filter list that addresses child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. Duncan Campbell noted that the inclusion of websites supporting terrorism on the Australian filter list could be subject to political interference.

Also on the same report, there's a nod to some of the criticism towards the filter:

It was noted that critics of the website filtering system often state the DIA would be better to spend its money pursuing actual offenders. Officials agreed that these statements demonstrate that the public is not fully aware of the enforcement action taken by the DIA and information on the number of search warrant and prosecutions undertaken should be made available on the department's website.

I found a small change in directions on how information collected by the Internet filter is used. When the filter was created, its proposal had this:

2.4 A person who views a website containing chid sexual abuse images is in possession of those images, if only for the period they appear on the screen. The Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System therefore will help prevent inadvertent exposure to these images and will also help prevent New Zealanders from committing crimes.

Note how the minutes from February 2010 describes the filter as not being an enforcement tool:

It was explained that the filtering system is not an enforcement tool and could not be used to aid prosecutions. The Department was unaware of any European jurisdiction, currently using a webpage filtering system, which uses their system for enforcement purposes.

And later from a committee meeting in August 2011:

Andrew Bowater asked whether the Censorship Compliance Unit can identify whether a person who is being prosecuted has been blocked by the filtering system. Using the hash value of the filtering system's blocking page, Inspectors of Publications now check seized computers to see if it has been blocked by the filtering system. The Department has yet to come across an offender that has been blocked by the filter.

This is a big change in usage of filter log records. As said before the filter is there to prevent inadvertent exposure, so a PC being blocked doesn't mean intent. It could've been inadvertent, right?

In the February 2010 meeting we read:

Asked to address some of the criticisms of website filtering, officers explained that, while a website filtering system will not address peer-to-peer trading it will still make a significant contribution to combating child sexual abuse images. There is a great deal of traffic going to objectionable websites and inadvertent exposure to this material is a real risk of being online. Websites also play a part in transactions to purchase child sexual abuse images and act as a gateway to peer-to-peer services. Often an offender's first interaction with this material is through such websites. The filtering system is also a tool to raise the public's awareness of this type of offending and the harm caused to victims. The Group agreed that this particular aspect of the filter needs to be more clearly conveyed to the public.

So it looks like the filter is working, the committee is doing a good job of keeping on top of things, although there has been some change in how the information collected is now being used to help investigations, which wasn't what the filter was intended for (at least not what they set in the first meeting).

The two most recent reports also list some of the reasons submitted by people who stumble on the filter page and request access to the material behind it. The list is sad and hilarious, reading like a description of dumb scum people:

  • I just want to see it
  • I fantasy about my aunt
  • I don't have children
  • Its only hentai there is no auctal harm in it
  • Curious
  • Not Real
  • Just to see if its as bad as you say it is ok
  • Reaserch
  • I like cute boys
  • Just looking
  • None of your business
  • At 70 yrs old I should be able to see this
  • just peeking so i can report it for blocking

These idiots really are the lowest of the lowest scum, right? The filter seems to be doing its job, the DIA is working hard to catch people trading this type of content. So why am I touching (no pun intended) on this again, after two years?

Because back in 2009 when the filter was created many people (myself included) were afraid a nationwide Internet filter system could one day be used for political purposes either by filtering free speech, or protecting copyright ownership and so on.

It seems the filter has been well applied in the last couple of years, although I disagree with the stance change in "not helping investigation prosecution" to "helping investigation and prosecution", but so be it, it's still within the child exploitation limits.

But because there was this change I still fear other changes can be made. I still have fears that our own little DIA filter can one day be expanded from "think of the children" to "think of the copyright owners and anyone who dares disagree with the established opinion or government actions". Check foobar's old blog post on this possibility. Read about the proposed SOPA legislation in the US. And read about the recent Spanish anti-piracy law.

Yes, I know. Think of the children. But think of our future too.

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Mauricio Freitas
New Zealand

I live in New Zealand and my interests include mobile devices, good books, movies and food of course! 

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