Putting up barriers to a free and open internet

 

The Government has been having high-level discussions on introducing internet blocking, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

THE GOVERNMENT has had extensive private discussions on introducing internet blocking – barring access to websites or domains – according to material obtained under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

The approach is used by some internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile network operators to block access to child pornography. But increasingly, governments and law enforcement agencies are pushing for much broader use, ranging from blocking filesharing sites to trying to tackle cybercrime and terrorism.

Critics say internet blocking creates many problems with little real effect on illegal activity. For example, internet users and businesses have complained about the side-effects of domain blocking, where barring access to domains can shut down hundreds of personal and business websites as well as e-mail addresses associated with them.

The exact nature of the Government discussions cannot be determined as many of the requests for key documents were refused by the Department of Justice. However, the ongoing high level of discussion on the subject is indicated in the detailed description of each refused item in the list of materials returned by the department.

The FOI request, made by privacy advocate Digital Rights Ireland and seen by The Irish Times, contains eight pages of listed documents. One refused item details a June 2009 meeting between the department and Vodafone on the “introduction of internet filtering in Ireland”. Another is an e-mail from mobile operator 3 listing filter technologies it is using.

Another refused item details minutes of a meeting between the Office for Internet Safety and the Garda “re proposed introduction of blocking technology”. Discussions on the international use of blocking and on proposed European legislation were also refused.

Possible interest in the wider use of such technologies is indicated by a refused document in which an e-mail and note on blocking child pornography sites was forwarded to the official in the Department of Justice in charge of casino gaming regulation.

Proponents of internet blocking argue that it removes offensive and illegal material from the internet and can make it more difficult for child pornographers and their customers to operate.

But critics say it is a blunt instrument that does little to combat pornography or other activities, while causing headaches for networks and ISPs. It can also cause inconvenience and costly disruptions to service for innocent companies and individuals if their websites, internet access and e-mail get cut off.

Paul Durrant of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of Ireland says blocking brings cost burdens for service providers and is not particularly effective. He also says it often means many legitimate websites are barred.

Often, website operators are not informed that their site is on a blacklist and may be unaware that millions are denied access to it.

ISPs also object to taking on the role of policing illegal filesharing. Internationally, ISPs claim they are under increasing pressure from copyright holders and law enforcement agencies to bring in blocking software to do this. “It gets very difficult to judge what is illegal and this kind of blocking would be problematic to implement,” says Durrant. “The Government really needs to put clear laws in place if it wants to do this.”

Durrant adds that blocking “stifles a free and open internet” – a concern for national and international “smart-economy” businesses – and could affect inward investment and the ability of Irish businesses to operate effectively.

Existing evidence indicates that blocking is a clumsy approach and amounts to censorship, says TJ McIntyre, a barrister, UCD law lecturer and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland. He is concerned about the indications from his FOI request that blocking could be brought in on a national level.

McIntyre has written a paper arguing that increasing pressure on network providers and ISPs to act as third-party “gatekeepers”, often in a “voluntary” fashion, allows for unaccountable control of internet users and usage.

“Blocking involves censorship taken on no legal basis. There is no judge, no jury and no right to be heard if you are blocked,” says McIntyre. “The chances are it also will be used in unaccountable ways by unaccountable organisations.”

He adds: “If you want to stop people accessing certain material, the thing to do is to legislate for that.”