technology

A beginner’s guide to blocking the internet

Internet blocking is a hot topic, with the Government proposing blocking gambling websites and Spark and 2degrees pledging to ban 8chan, but what does it really mean? Marc Daalder explains.

The internet poses a variety of complex challenges to New Zealand society, from fake news and online radicalisation to gambling websites that strip Kiwis of hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Increasingly, politicians and pundits are looking to internet blocking as a potential solution, but what does that really mean?

On Monday, InternetNZ released a report detailing the different ways internet blocking could be implemented and the risks accompanying each method.

An issue of choice

At its heart, InternetNZ says, the debate over internet blocking has to do with choice. It cautiously supports efforts to regulate content by both users or platforms, but warns against bringing in ISPs and meddling with internet infrastructure.

The most basic form of content blocking is performed at home, when people (usually parents) purchase programs or devices that block access to certain kinds of content on their home internet networks. Most ISPs offer some form of filter along these lines.

These filters are also commonplace in workplaces and schools to prevent people from accessing inappropriate content. While groups like InternetNZ have a handful of concerns about these filters - policy advisor Nicola Brown used the example of an LGBT teen whose parents blocked access to LGBT-related sites - they aren't an example of the Government or massive corporations regulating speech or expression.

On the other end of the equation is content moderation on platforms. This occurs when websites like Facebook or Twitter remove content that violates community standards. There are some issues here, such as when Facebook's algorithm banned a famous photograph of a girl fleeing a napalm strike in Vietnam. 

By and large, however, such censorship is part of the deal you make when you sign up for a social media account. InternetNZ's report states, "Social media and platform moderation is the ideal place for making content decisions when the consideration is integrity of core internet infrastructure. However, it needs to be done in a way that is transparent, accountable, and allows for due process".

Increasingly, however, there are online platforms that refuse to moderate content - such as 8chan - or do so too slowly or inefficiently. These criticisms were also leveled against Facebook after it allowed the alleged Christchurch shooter to stream his actions for more than 17 minutes.

In such situations, people turn to the companies that interact with the fundamental infrastructure of the internet, like domain hosts and ISPs. After Christchurch, ISPs took down a slew of websites hosting the video or the alleged shooter's manifesto. InternetNZ, acting in its role as a domain name registry, took down one .nz website for 24 hours until the video was removed.

How to censor the internet

While InternetNZ endorses the actions taken after Christchurch, it wants to see new crisis rules and processes put into place so that in future emergencies, companies can follow a set of predetermined procedures. Moreover, it strongly opposes most action to block content in non-emergency situations, such as the recent move by Spark and 2degrees to block access to the far-right 8chan message board.

ISPs can block access to websites based on the IP address hosting the site, but this can sometimes take down hundreds or even thousands of other sites hosted at that IP address. For more specific action, ISPs can block access based on the domain name (e.g., newsroom.co.nz) or the even more specific URL (https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/09/09/798244/a-beginners-guide-to-blocking-the-internet).

While this stops people from easily accessing such sites, tech-savvy users or people determined enough can circumvent these measures. In other words, this content blocking prevents people who don't mean to access the content from stumbling across it, but is not effective at deterring people who actively seek it out.

The final method for internet blocking involves opening every data package that enters the country and inspecting it for a set of keywords, specific images, or other blocked content. This is how the so-called Great Firewall of China operates. Like the earlier methods, this can be circumvented through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

As it stands, New Zealand has no laws in place mandating any form of internet censorship. The closest thing the country has to mandatory censorship is the DCEFS, which is a Government-run internet filter blocking child pornography websites. Although all ISPs participate in this programme, the participation is voluntary.

This contrasts with approaches taken overseas. In Australia, the Government has passed a stringent law seeking to regulate the promotion of terrorist content on social media platforms. Australia and Switzerland also block gambling sites that violate their laws.

The United Kingdom is currently working to get a ban on under-18-year-olds accessing pornography off the ground, but is struggling with implementation. Although it's not explicit content blocking, in the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has created an entire system for taking down copyrighted content.

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