The very thought of wholesale censorship of the internet by governments would appear abhorrent to many in this digital, hyper-connected era, but it hasn’t stop many from trying. Whether for religious, cultural, national security or citizen ‘protection’ reasons, closing down or restricting parts of the Internet may be a futile cause and, in some cases, politically dangerous in for those in Western democracies.

A point in case was Australia’s efforts to introduce mandatory filtering of sites, deemed by the government to not be in the public’s interest. Ostensibly suggested in 2008 as a means of limiting the online distribution of child sexual abuse images, the policy became the target of civil libertarians concerned that the filtering would not stop there.

The onus for filtering fell to the country’s ISPs who were expected, no, directed to enforce the government’s filtering policies and block a list of sites provided by the government, at their own expense. Opposition parties were quick to campaign against this sort of heavy-handed policy seemingly out of place in today’s society.

However, since that time an Interpol resolution has been adopted to address the child abuse sites issues and via national police authorities have managed to work hand in hand with ISPs under existing laws to block the specific set of domains on a multilaterally maintained Interpol blacklist.

Whilst this has provided the Australian Government and, in particular, the Communications Minister, Senator Conroy (voted by the British Internet Industry as the ‘Internet Villain of the Year’) an escape but it raises the question of whether internet censorship in any form is acceptable or even viable.

That’s not to say it does not exists, in fact it is rife across Asia and the Middle East with many sites blocked for political, religious or sexual content with warning notices popping up notifying the viewer that their activity has been stopped and that they are being watched. Big Brother?

The issue becomes who is responsible for stopping access to banned sites. Is it the ISPs, the government censors or the site owners themselves? It’s becoming tougher for CSPs and ISPs to provide a profitable internet service and the added burden of acting as policemen would seem to be an unreasonable request.

In any case, blocking of sites at any level is only a temporary solution at best. Enterprising website owners soon find proxies to work through and users take advantage of the many VPN services that simply skirt around the internet blocks and find access via any number of other ‘back doors’. It also begs the question where internet censorship fits into the concept of ‘net neutrality’. That could take some explaining.

First published at Telco Professionals on 9 November 2012