Update: I should have read more carefully: Time Warner and Verizon confirmed they’re not going to block any Web sites. I’ve changed text below to reflect that.
Yesterday, I posted a quick analysis of the new policy (using the methodology I propose in a new draft paper) undertaken by Sprint, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable at the behest of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo: they’ll voluntarily block child porn. As more details emerge, though, I’m more skeptical about the plan. First, I held off assessing how narrow this filtering system would be (does it successfully block child porn, and only child porn?), since technical details are sketchy. But if the latest reports are to be believed, I’m ready to make a call: completely overbroad. Time Warner is going to eliminate all newsgroups by the end of the month. So, to block child porn, we’ll wipe out TW subscribers’ ability to talk about SCUBA diving, radio astronomy in India, or support for people with bipolar disorder? I think this is a great candidate for addition to the paper as an approach to filtering that is not narrow. This is, in fact, complete overkill.
Will Verizon and Sprint follow suit? Blogger Lauren Weinstein and News.com reporter Declan McCullagh say Verizon will cut off some groups (VZ is being unspecific), and Sprint will kill off all alt.* groups (so much for the 61 Google lists as pet-related). Both moves look unnecessarily broad.
The strange part is that Weinstein and McCullagh
suggest state the ISPs will scour their servers for sites hosting child porn, but won’t engage in any filtering. (This NetworkWorld article implies the same thing; McCullagh’s article confirms it for VZ and TWC.) This makes sense for one reason: cost. Filtering effectively is going to be expensive. Eliminating Usenet feeds, and looking through their files (doubtless using the hash database) for unlawful images is relatively cheap. So, there’s both more (overblocking) and less (actual Web filtering) here than it first appears. It sounds like the initial press releases were a bit overhyped, and that AG Cuomo got 1) $1M+ in funding, 2) elimination of a lot of Usenet, and 3) a search of their servers from the ISPs. That’ll help, but not much.
As for the French: the government and ISPs have agreed to block access to child porn, terrorism, and racial hatred sites. (Good luck on #2: defining terrorism is exceptionally difficult. It’s hard even to arrive at a theoretical definition, let alone to decide between guerrilla movements, violent religious fundamentalist groups, and state-sponsored insurgents.) I suggested that this public-private partnership model is common for Western democracies, with a new “iron triangle” of ISPs, NGO watchdogs, and state regulators quietly agreeing on filtering via private or informal agreements. (The AP cites Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, and Canada as employing similar structures.) The French system follows this model. According to a speech by Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, French users will be able to flag certain sites as falling into one of these categories, and they’ll be compiled into a block list supplied to French ISPs. (This is a very interesting idea, used by open source projects such as the Open Directory Project and OpenDNS, in categorizing sites via volunteers who rate them. It reduces the workload for the government and ISPs, and can theoretically empower users to participate in decisionmaking.)
Interesting times for Internet filtering.