Despite my infrequent posts, I’m going to go off script for a little bit and talk about an issue which goes to the heart of the internet – censorship. More specifically, I’d like to voice some of my concerns and hopefully provide anyone whose prepared to listen for a few moments some food for thought, and information on some simple actions they can take to put the brakes on this Government folly.
If you’ve been living under a rock for a while or missed the tech news today, our Federal Government is pushing forward with a plan to force Internet Service Providers [ISPs] to censor the Internet for all Australians. This plan will waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and will not make anyone safer.
What will the filter do?
Well, that’s still the subject of debate because the Government hasn’t been honest and open about what it really plans to do.
Information available so far indicates that the Government;
- will make filtering mandatory in all homes and schools across the country.1
- will implement a clean feed will censor material that is “harmful and inappropriate” for children.2
- must enact supporting legislation that requires a massive expansion of the ACMA’s blacklist of prohibited content, and therefore the scope and financial burden to taxpayers.3
- will force all internet traffic to pass through dynamic filters of questionable accuracy that slow the internet down by an average of 30%.4
- will target legal as well as illegal material.5
- has been budgeted in excess of $44m for the implementation of this scheme so far – and counting.6
- despite saying the clean-feed for children will be opt-out, will still force all traffic second filter will be mandatory for all Australian Internet users.7
Some simple cost/benefit analysis
On a cost basis alone I dread to think what the ongoing burden to the Australian taxpayer will be from this filter.
I’ve not been able to find out how much China has invested and continues to expend on its great firewall, but considering they have over an estimated 30,000 internet police [ref], imagine the cost of providing a scaled number of internet police in the Australian bureaucracy.
Here’s the executive summary of my estimate of potential costs in respect of the workforce needed to support the filter:
- One agency will almost double in staff overnight, adding 470+ new staff to deliver the ‘clean feed’
- raw wages costs for these employees will be in the order of $26.3 million, increasing over $30 million by 2020
- this amount does not factor in population growth or employee on-costs which would increase these amounts considerably
For those who wish to explore beyond the executive summary, let’s do some quick math to work out how I came to this. I don’t put this math up as a definitive answer to this question, and there might be some economists out there who could punch holes in it – but please stick with me.
My working assumption is that the amount of internet police needed scales to the size of the population. If we use China’s 2007 estimated population as the baseline, they have 1 member of the internet police for approximately ever 37,667 (rounded) citizens. If you want to check that math, do it as a percentage by looking at the size of the Australian population compared to China (Wolfram Alpha is your friend for these calculations).
Sticking with the assuming that the number of internet police in china can scale to population size, ACMA will be adding around 477 people to it’s payroll – which working on the 2007/08 annual report staffing figures would almost double the agency’s size almost overnight. (2008/09 report hasn’t been uploaded to their website yet).
Now, the next calculation assumes that these additional 477 new staff will be distributed across ACMA’s collective agreement pay bands within similar to the reported distribution in the previously cited staffing figures.
Excluding an estimated 16 staff to be paid at Senior Executive Service levels, the raw wages bill for these staff works out to $26.3 million for 2007/08. This figure is before the calculation of on-costs to salaries such as Superannuation, leave entitlements, costs of providing HR services, etc. I can’t put my hands on an average number for on-costs across Federal Government right at this point.
Adjust that for national wage inflation (reported at 0.9% annually for the March 2009 quarter), this increases to around $30 million by the end of 2020 – without scaling workforce size to account for population growth (can’t do population math at 11:30 in the evening despite this being one of the key assumptions in my math).
And what about infrastructure costs?
Worse, this cost is before we talk about outlays for physical infrastructure, software, bandwidth, development and other ongoing costs necessary for such a system to be maintained. I’ve not seen any costings yet which explore how much money would be needed to maintain filtering infrastructure for the foreseeable future – so I’d just be plucking any figure out of thin air at this point.
This all makes you wonder that given the size and scope of the mandatory internet filter as both a government undertaking and an IT project – the enormous scale of taxpayer funds that would need to be spent to achieve the stated goal. Could this money be better spent in other areas of Government service delivery – without question, yes!
What does it mean to me as an Australian internet user?
If this plan goes ahead, this is what it will mean to you as an Australian internet user and taxpayer:
- Your tax dollars will be wasted on a flawed and expensive folly
At a time when hospitals are crowded, people experience long wait lists for the most basic and important surgery, and we can’t even feed, house, clothe and protect the most vulnerable members of society – should the Government be throwing our hard earned money away on this? I think not.Everyone, from industry groups, technical experts, civil libertarians (those important people who who stand up for the rights of those you may not like or agree with), and even non-government organisations whose sole reason for existence is for the protection of children – denounce this filter as an ineffective and expensive waste of government resources.
- Everything you do online can, and could easily be monitored
All traffic to sites on the filtering or block lists will be filtered and logged via a proxy. What’s to stop all your traffic being filtered and monitored in future?All it takes is for you to visit one website which some Government jobsworth doesn’t like, and you could easily find that all your traffic, and not just those to sites some committee finds objectionable could be monitored with relative ease.
- Expect your access to the ‘tubes’ to be slowed down
The Government’s own [self-promoting and heavily biased] report released today stated:
“It is possible for the solution to fail if pages from a heavily trafficked site are added to the blacklist. This is due to volume limitations of a typical proxy server. These sites serve video content to end users (such as YouTube, etc). The volume of video traffic would be likely to overwhelm a proxy server.
Not surprising, considering this pilot behind the report was setup and skewed in such a way which virtually guaranteed the Government was going to get the answer it wants.
- It can be circumvented
Anyone with a little technical knowledge can easily get around mandatory ISP filtering regardless of the technical barriers your internet company is forced to put in your way. Its not hard for someone with the least amount of IT experience to set-up an SSL tunnel to an offshore proxy server and simply route all their traffic through there circumventing pretty much every technical option the government proposes to implement with a single, simple action.
So, are we as a society going to sit back and let Australia’s internet turn into the second coming of the Great Firewall of China – or are you going to help us do something about it.
What you can do
If the arguments and views you’ve seen expressed about the internet filter make you think this government policy isn’t worth pursuing – then you need to stand up and make your voice heard.
Some of the actions you can take right now include:
- Find out more about the Government proposals
Visit http://nocleanfeed.com/ and http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/SaveTheNet to get up to speed on the Government’s proposals.
- Let your Federal representatives know what you think
Resources to locate your MP’s details and suggested letters can be found at:
- Show your support on various social networks including Twitter and Facebook
Visit http://twibbon.com/cause/nocleanfeed-3/Facebook to add a ribbon to your profile pic.
- Pass the message on
Putting the brakes on proposals like this can only happen if people get involved and have their voices heard. Feel free to repost this message to your wall, profile, wherever you feel is necessary to help Australians become aware of just what their Government is proposing to do with our money.
Good luck, and look forward to any help and assistance you can offer to keep Government hands away from our internet connections.